Naomi Milliner

Bits and Babbles

You & I & EVERYONE Else… should read this book!

 

Have you ever read a novel that just begs to be made into a movie? This was definitely the case with me as I laughed (and teared up) through Anna Schachner’s fantastic debut novel, YOU AND I AND SOMEONE ELSE. 

What was your inspiration for this novel?

I wanted it to be my love song to the South, so you can say that the South of my childhood— filling stations along two-lane highways, Coke in icy green bottles, rows of corn so straight it made you dizzy, small towns with cafes and hardware stores, lots of land and trees between those towns, connectivity of the people kind, a certain prim kind of disapproval of strangers and outsiders (the South of my youth was not perfect, of course— was my inspiration, too

How did the title come about? Is the “someone else” open to interpretation?

The novel had a couple of other not-so-good titles as I was writing it, but then right before I finished the first draft, You and I and Someone Else came to me. Triangular relationships are at the heart of the novel’s tension, and there are lots of them: Frannie, Jude, and Evan; and Duncan, Madelane, and Melissa, for example.  Maybe the most important one is Frannie, Jude, and the baby—the baby remains a concept for 99.9% of the book, so the question the reader is left with when the book ends is how that triangle will play out.  I also like the idea that the “someone else” is the future “I” of the title, that a person will change because of that relationship between the “you” and the “I” and perhaps become a person who is different, for better or worse.

Why did you write the prologue with Rita already pregnant with Frannie’s child, rather than go sequentially? (This probably won’t be the first question, by the way.)

I wanted the reader to have a quick introduction to the main narrative thread (there are a few, I know) before the first chapter, which is all backstory. And most of all, I wanted to send a message to the reader that, more so than plot, the intricacies of the relationships, particularly with Jude, Frannie, Evan, and Rita, were the things to focus on.

What was your biggest challenge writing this book?Anna Schachner

I think it would have to be converting it from a story collection into a novel.  I basically had the narrative, forward action of the novel contained in the stories, but I had to come up with backstory and context and nuance.  In doing so, I started to employ the First Person omniscient kind of point of view where the narrator, Frannie, tells stories she wouldn’t have been part of her herself. This technique operates like a Greek chorus, more or less, providing the reader necessary information but also allowing Frannie to spin it a little bit. At first, I struggled with these sections, but once I figured out all the narrative threads, they became much easier.  And to be honest: they are my favorite sections of the book because they really explore the characters and are better able to use lyrical language.

Could you tell about your journey to publication?

Well, it was long and meandering and not particularly glorious—at least until the end! As I mentioned above, the novel started as a story cycle, which did not find a home.  When I turned it into a novel, I queried agents, and had eight offer to represent me.  I chose the most established of them, and we signed a contract. She “shopped the book” to about ten houses in New York, but then lost interest.  We parted ways.  After that, the book sat, alone and sad, for a long time while I wrote two other books—because, since it had been partially shopped, no agent would be interested in it.  Then about three years ago, I decided to send it to some independent presses.  The first two declined, but said very nice things about it.  And then Mercer accepted it in November 2015.  It was published in April 2017.

Did you have the basic plot, and characters, worked out before you began?

No.  With the story collection, I had all but two characters—Hugh and Melissa—and most of the plot.  But once I came up with the backstory of Frannie’s father, including Hugh and Melissa, the plot really worked itself out.  Those two characters changed a lot! But even with the characters, Frannie included, that I did have already formed, they were really only formed to the extent that I knew what each of them wanted. That’s what I always start with: a character that really, really wants something and doesn’t quite know how to get it.  For Frannie, it was that she wanted a family.  She wanted to be a mother.

Was this story percolating for a long time, or did it come to you all at once?

It percolated.  It percolated.  It percolated. For me, the only way to make any progress on a book is to write and see where that takes me.  So, even though the book bumped around in my imagination during that time when I was trying to figure out how to convert it into a novel from a story collection, I could only figure out how to do it once I started writing.  I know authors who plan their books, down to what happens in each scene, but I have no idea how that works. Even if it’s a slower process, I have to figure it out as I go. And it’s very visceral—I have to type the words for the words to connect.  I do a lot of spin classes and walking, and I always “write” when I’m on the bike or huffing it home that last mile.  And sometimes I will actually compose a full sentence in my head that makes it onto the page.  That’s it, though.  If I try to put the sentences together without typing or seeing the words, it doesn’t work.  So I use my cardio time to think about plot or motivation or what a character would wear to church, I gotta have the words forming, though, to get at the characters, to really expose them. For me, the magic of the process is the discovery, when the characters are calling the shots. That’s when you know that the characters are really working—because you trust them.

you and i and someone elseI fell in love with these characters! Will there be a sequel? (Please say yes.)

That is very nice of you to ask.  The thing is, I love these characters, too.  I still do. When I finished the book ten years ago, I had no interest in writing a sequel.  It never occurred to me.  But so many people have asked me about a sequel that I’ve started thinking about it. So maybe.  I know this much: the character who interests me the most is Melissa. I don’t have all of her story worked out, and I think it would be fun to do that.  So maybe not so much a sequel as a tangential, if that’s a word that can apply to books.

 The parallels of lost children, plus Frannie’s inability to have them, are poignant and powerful.  What made you come up with that part of the story?

A lot of people close to me have lost children. I have always thought that was the worst thing life could do to you. It changes someone. It breaks up marriages. It haunts siblings. It causes resentment toward those who have not lost children. Of course, it is natural to think that mothers suffer the worst, and certainly, Frannie’s mother, Rita, and to some extent, Frannie herself, suffer and grieve for their lost children. But I wondered about fathers, their stories.  We know women’s stories more than men’s (the husbands or partners). So, Jude was the convergence of those two things—the man who has lost a child and who, if he stays with Frannie, will not be able to be a father again in the traditional way. In many ways, the book is about parenting.  Some of that parenting is bad.  Some of it is competent. Some of it is almost too good, too selfless.  And a lot of it is speculative, on Frannie’s part at least.  That’s the thing about being a child—you know just how to parent better than your mother or father did when you grow up. Or you think you know.

Did any characters, or plot development, surprise you?

You know, it all didPlot always surprises me.  It’s the most challenging part of writing for me, so, for the most part, it comes slowly and with a lot of thinking and revision. Sometimes it comes more quickly. Either way, I am always pleasantly surprised. And once I start letting the characters take over the story, I am always surprised.  Everything about Jude and Hugh surprised me. I’ve always been intrigued by this—that the two guys Frannie had to choose between were the ones that were barely named, much less developed, when I started the book.  That might have something to do with the 47 dates I went on in three months—thank you, Match.com—when I was writing the novel.  Some of those dates were novels themselves.  Pick a literary genre, and I had a date that matched it.

As a debut author, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

This is the easiest question to answer because I know I am right: have grit.  Talent helps. but passion and perseverance—grit—is what will take you there.  Write about what you feel passionately; and know from the very beginning that writing and publishing are two very different things.  You can control the writing, but you can’t control the publishing.  If you want to publish, though, you just keep at it and you never ever ever write something because you think it will publish.  Write something because you are just arrogant or optimistic enough to think that because you feel it, readers will, too.  Write because you think that your very best sentence—the one you are still striving to write—will change the world.

Could you tell us about your next project?

Well, last week, I just finished another novel. I think it counts as my next project because it is about to start its journey to publication.  It’s about an 18-year-old girl, Parker, who learns to trade her anger for passion.  It’s also about the mystery of the wild and family secrets and foster homes. And Birkenstocks—they take a hit in the book.  Oh, and there’s a ghost.  When I started the book, I thought it was going to be a modern rewrite of Jane Eyre, but—surprise, surprise!—it ended up being something else altogether.

Anna, thanks so much for taking the time to give such thoughtful, honest and in-depth responses. I know everyone who reads your book will love it as much as I did!

 

 

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Better than ‘Good’ Karma

One of the most enjoyable books I read this past year is GOOD KARMA by debut novelist Christina Kelly. I fell in love with its perfect blend of humor and pathos and its memorable cast of eccentric-but-relatable characters. What immediately won me over, though – even before page one – was Christina’s “Dear Reader” intro…GoodKarmacover

Your unusual “Dear Reader” intro tells of your publishing journey. Was it your idea to include it?

It was my editor’s idea, but I really enjoyed writing it. It allowed me to let the reader get to know me a bit. Also, I hope it gives someone who has considered writing a novel the courage to start.

Your intro implies that Catherine was a surprising choice – to you – for your heroine. Had you originally expected it to be someone else’s story? Did your original vision change as you wrote the novel?

Yes, before I started writing, I thought it would be Ida Blue’s story. I was taken by the idea of a “pet psychic” who understands that she has no psychic power, but just wants to help people however she can. Once Catherine and Ralph arrived at my fictional community, I knew they would intersect with Ida Blue, but I didn’t know how. I had a vague plot worked out, but my characters didn’t cooperate and started acting on their own.

How early on did you come up with your perfect title?

I’m so glad you like the title “Good Karma” as much as I do. My working title for the first two years of writing was “The Gates.” My original idea was to have the entire novel set within a gated community. The metaphor, of course, was that my characters were trapped (in different ways) in their routines and relationships. As the character of Karma the dog became more active and brought several characters together (with the help of Sequoia), I thought good karma fit nicely.

Do you have a “Karma” in your life?gussiebeach

Do we ever. Gussie is our eight-year-old rescue Boston terrier. She’s obsessed with chasing tennis balls and is stubborn, but hilarious.

One of the main things you explore – with the perfect blend of humor and pathos – is what happens after the passion is gone after decades of marriage: Is it worth fighting for/reinventing… or is it too late? Did you know the answer (for Catherine) when you began, or did she let you know as her tale unfolded?

I did not know the ending before I began. In fact, I don’t think I even knew it until I wrote the final scene.

What was your biggest challenge in writing this novel?

Continuing to write when I questioned whether it would ever get published. Honestly, I think this is why having a writing group is so important. My friends really encouraged me when I might have given up.

What was your biggest surprise?

My biggest surprise has more to do with marketing than writing. I had always avoided any form of social media, so it was a challenge when my HarperCollins team recommended I join Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It has been a slow learning curve, but I’ve quite enjoyed connecting with old friends and meeting new ones. Who knew?!

One of my favorite characters, Fred’s wife Lissa, is… dead. You wrote: “He tried to imagine a life, even a dog, with anyone else.” What made you decide to make Lissa so vivid and vibrant after killing her off?

I imagined her as such a spirited woman. When I wrote from Fred’s point of view, I knew he would hear her, so I thought the reader should too.

One of the most heartbreaking lines is when Fred’s dog immediately takes a liking to Catherine and licks her: “Catherine suddenly remembered what it was to be loved.” Could you speak to the importance of dogs and their unconditional affection and loyalty – both in your book and, perhaps, in your own life?

Ha! Our Boston terrier is perhaps the least affectionate dog on the planet. Perhaps I was writing about a love that I wanted.

How did you come up with the unique character of Amity, who creeps in other people’s homes?

I have plenty of friends (myself included) who love to go to real estate open houses and binge watch HGTV’s house hunting shows. I think most of us can relate to the feeling of wanting to live other people’s lives, if only for an hour or an episode.

What do you want most for your readers to take away?

That it’s never to late to find your voice or the love of your life. Also, of course, that good karma is always lurking out there, ready to surprise you.

Could you give us a sneak peek into your current project?ChristinaKelly2

Yes, I’m delighted that I’m about five chapters into my next novel. It’s about a long-married couple who are on a road trip to see their family. Hard to imagine, but my new cast of characters feel livelier than the last. Put on your seatbelts because it’s going to be fun.


To find out more about Christina, check out:
https://www.facebook.com/ChristinaKellyAuthor
Author page: https://www.christinakellyauthor.com/
GOOD KARMA is now available from HarperCollins:
https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062659705/good-karma
… and Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, or wherever books are sold.

 

Essential Maps for the Lost

maps-caletti
Deb Caletti has done it again, in what is perhaps her best book yet – and that says a lot. Her beautiful YA books are always a cause for celebration, and this one is no exception. In Mads and Billy, she has given us two star-crossed teens who are perfect for each other: both yearn to rescue others (in her case, a baby; in his, a dog), and both share a deep love for E.L. Konigsburg’s classic, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER . The catch is, their unorthodox (and unknown, on his end) connection is a haunting and painful one. Yet, it is impossible not to care about, and root for, these captivating and deserving leads. And the writing? It was hard to pick just one sample, but here it is: ““Happy” is never a just. It’s not a destination you reach, a place to finally set down your bags. There are large happys and a million small ones and a bunch of awfuls and daily smashups and successes and droughts and rainfalls and perfect, dewy spiderwebs on a sunny morning and creepy, sticky spiderwebs in your hair in a dark attic. Life is always everything, all at once.” So, do yourself a favor, and read this book – then do your friends a favor, and tell them to read it, too.

Holding “Court” with Michelle Brafman

This month’s blog is with an award-winning local (at least, to folks in Maryland) author, Michelle Brafman, whose latest book is hot off the press. BERTRAND COURT is a spellbinding collection of seventeen intricately interwoven short stories. The stories span roughly eighty years, and a cast of characters linked both by family and location (hence the title). Michelle, who has been called “a Jewish Anne Lamott,” has been praised by critics for her empathy and honesty.

Kittner_20140916_4158

Her haunting first story– which is one of my favorites – is in the unusual format of second person. It is powerful, poignant and unforgettable. Every story is unique and memorable, but for me they all share several qualities: luminous writing; universal themes; and compassion for her characters, and for us all.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to find out more about Michelle’s book, and about her fascinating journey to publication.

Why did it take 15 years to write BERTRAND COURT? Were you writing other things in-between? Mulling them over? Or other reasons?

I actually wrote what I thought was the finished book fifteen years ago, but numerous agents advised me to write and publish a novel first. Tall order! I set BERTRAND COURT aside and wrote and sold my novel WASHING THE DEAD. My publisher, Prospect Park Books, asked to see BERTRAND COURT, and here we are. I proceeded to spend a good six months tightening the connections between the characters, writing new pieces to bridge the stories together, and leveling out the quality of the writing.bertrand-court

Way back when, I was devastated that I couldn’t find a home for BERTRAND COURT, but now I’m grateful for the marination time and the chance to hone my writing skills. It’s a much better book.

What made you choose 1st person for certain stories and 3rd person for others?

I picked the point of view that I felt best served the story. For example, I was going for a confessional tone with “Sylvia’s Spoon,” so the first person point of view felt right. I chose third person when I was trying to insert a little more space between the reader and the story, meaning pull back the camera a bit for a wider shot. And in the opening story, I selected second person, because I wanted to bring the reader so tight into the story that he/she would believe that the narrator was a fetus.

Are any sections based on your own experience?

Not factually, but I certainly felt some of the emotions I ascribed to my characters. For example, when I was pregnant, I did not yearn to visit my old urban haunts, but I did have moments when I realized that the gap between my newly domesticated life and my roaring twenties was widening daily.

Is any character closest to you/most like you?

There’s a piece of me in every single character!

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Some of these stories took years to mature because I simply did not have either the insight or the chops to tell them. Of course, I was antsy to publish them anyway. But now I realize that sometimes I have to back away from a story (or even a novel) and let it grow up all on its own.

Had you always planned to link the sections together?

Not at first, but then I found myself drawn to linked story collections, and soon I found myself exploring various characters’ takes on a specific story. Soon these characters started popping up in other pieces, and before I knew it, I’d created a universe of people with shared histories, secrets, and conflicts. I’m always humbled by how connected we all are to one another and how much these connections matter.

How did you decide on 17 stories? Were there any others you wrote but chose to leave out? If so, why?

I initially wrote 13 stories, but when I returned to the book years later, I realized that I had some holes to fill. I kept adding stories until I felt the book cohered.

michelle-at-ppThere were two stories that I had to drop because the characters were too peripheral to Bertrand Court, and hard as I tried, I couldn’t shoehorn them into the book. One piece was published elsewhere, and the others served as the springboard for my new novel.

Was one story harder to write than the others? Do you have a personal favorite?

“Minocqua Bats” was really hard to write because the story turned out to be about something entirely different than my initial errand for it. I kept fighting the material, so I had to put it away for a while and then open up my mind and heart to what was happening on the page.

I do not have a favorite. I love them all equally!

If you could add one more story, which character would you write about and why?

That’s a really good question. I’d probably write more about Maggie, the former cheerleader who lets herself go and marries a Jew to spite her mother. Poor Maggie gets the most airtime when she’s at her absolute worst. I’d be curious to see her during a moment when she’s a bit more settled into herself, yet on the brink of returning to her old sanctimonious ways. Oh, boy. That would be fun.

You mention wanting to revisit “poor Maggie” – do you think you might write a sequel of sorts, seeing what happened to the characters 5 or 10 years later? I’d love to find out! 🙂

That’s an intriguing idea! I hadn’t considered it, but maybe I will now.

How did you come up with the concept for this book?

The concept evolved over time, as I grew more curious about these characters. Who were they when they were pushed to their emotional brink? When they were on more solid footing? How were they perceived by their family members, friends, or enemies?  For example, the same character who in one story steals the family silver, emerges as the family matriarch in another, or the rock sold dental hygienist who serves as the glue for both her family and Bertrand Court, steals a leather jacket from Nordstrom when her husband’s business goes bankrupt. I can be quick to judge others and myself, and writing helps me to take a step back and embrace the complexities and inconsistencies that make us all so frustrating, loveable, disappointing, funny, and ultimately, human.

Lastly, would you like to talk a bit about your first novel, WASHING THE DEAD? You spoke about the BERTRAND COURT journey, which was fascinating, and it made me wonder if it was easier to get WTD published? Did you have to submit to a lot of publishers? Did you have an agent? Why do you think you were able to sell that one first (besides BC needing to marinate)?

I did go through a rather lengthy process, seven years total, to write and revise Washing the Dead and in turn find the right agent and publisher. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have published Bertrand Court had I kept trying, but I think it all worked out the way it was supposed to. Of course, it’s easy to say this now!!

Thank you so much, Michelle, for, taking the time to answer these questions.

I hope you’ll all run to your local bookstores, or to one of the following sites on your computer:

https://www.amazon.com/Michelle-Brafman/e/B00MW84FIQ

http://www.politics-prose.com/search/site/michelle%20brafman

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/michelle+brafman?_requestid=244310

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Back into the Past with Author Nomi Eve

I first “met” Nomi Eve thanks to the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA). Her latest novel, HENNA HOUSE, was one of our Great Group Reads candidates. With its elegant prose, meticulous research, and fascinating glimpse into a little-known world, it was so well-loved that it became one of our 2015 selections. As one of her many fans, I contacted Nomi and she was kind enough to grant an interview for this blog.NOMI EVE-2

Specializing in historic fiction, Nomi’s first book, THE FAMILY ORCHARD, is a unique multi-generational saga based on her own family’s history. It was a Book-of-the-Month club Main Selection, and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. It also received starred reviews from both Kirkus (“Lyrically overpowering”) and Publishers Weekly (“…sensual, spiritual, and humorous…”). One of my favorite lines is, “When he spoke he waved his hands wildly as if he had extra vowels in his fingers and verbs in his fists.”  Another favorite, which – perhaps – is the heart of this book, is “…what is family but a living hall of a loved one’s many faces?”

HENNA HOUSE begins in 1920 Yemen, and features an unforgettable heroine and the tremendous role the art of henna comes to play in her life. In addition to being a GGR selection, it was also selected as the One Book One Community Selection for the Philadelphia Jewish Community Read program, and is rated 4 ½ stars on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. One of my favorite lines is, “Without henna, I wouldn’t know how to read myself.” Another is, “I wondered what it would feel like to speak a weapon, and to forge a word.”

One of Nomi’s goals was to reach 100 book clubs; she has already surpassed that with 139! Her new goal is to have 100 Skype visits (she’s already at 69). If you’re interested in Skyping with Nomi, you can sign up at her website: http://nomi-eve.com/

And now it’s time to let Nomi speak for herself.

THE FAMILY ORCHARDfamily orchard

  1. It looks like the first two stories/chapters were published separately; had you always envisioned them as part of a larger novel?

Yes, I always envisioned those chapters (and all the chapters) to be part of one unified narrative.  But because each generation in The Family Orchard  is treated separately, those early chapters were easy to excerpt for publication in literary magazines.

  1. How much of this book, these stories, are true? Are you father’s recollections 100% based on fact, and yours mostly fiction?

I tell people that at the beginning of The Family Orchard that the “My Father Writes” passages are taken almost word for word from my father’s actual notebooks.  And in the beginning the “I write” passages are completely “fictional” or imagined.  But somewhere towards the middle of the book this flips, and truth comes to reside in my voice, while my father’ voice embroiders and covers over the essential facts of the family narrative.

That is so interesting! Did you expect this to happen, or were you surprised? And why do you think it did?

What I was interested in as a writer was the following:  How do we know who we are, where does truth reside in family stories?  And how do you form an identity when family history isn’t what it seems to be.  The structure of The Family Orchard represents how we figure out who we are – we inherit stories from our parents and grandparents.  But the stories inevitably have holes in them – holes left intentionally or by accident of memory.  The process of growing up is a process of fashioning our own narratives as a way of filling in the holes and coming to terms with all that has been left out.

I guess that’s something we all do, one way or another – even if we don’t write a book about it.

  1. Did you draw more from research of your own imagination?

Both.  I can’t write without researching and I can’t research without imagining.

I love the way you phrased this, Nomi.  

Thanks!

  1. The co-writing with your father is so unique, how did it come to be? Had you planned to collaborate with him all along?

No, I never planned to write this book in this particular way.  But I did plan on writing a book that wrested with our family history. As a young novelist I think that I felt both blessed and burdened by my father’s family tree-notebooks. One day I just opened one up and copied out some words.  Then I found myself writing “I write…” and this novel was born.

Okay, this just begs for more explanation! When did you first learn of your father’s family tree-notebooks? When did he first begin writing them? How many were there? How much did you draw from them in writing your novel? Do you think your father ever envisioned them being used in such a public way? What was his reaction when you first discussed it with him?

I grew up with the notebooks. They, and the family tree map, were his passion. He was always working on them.  They were an essential fact of my growing up. I drew from them tremendously. Whole passages I took right out of them. And in other cases I assimilated information and imagined the lives of the people he had researched. No, my father never envisioned what I was going to do.  He was incredibly gracious and gave me leave to do whatever I needed to do with his work.

There’s no denying you put them to great use.

  1. Did you consult with him as, or after, you wrote each section? Did he ever ask you to add, delete, or change anything?

No, I never consulted with my father to ask permission for anything.  But I did consult with him for help in my own research.  My father gave me the greatest gift.  He didn’t judge and he didn’t ask me to delete anything.  He gave me his blessing to confront our family history on my own very public terms.  I will be forever grateful to him for this.

It is an incredible gift. And now you have shared this gift with your own children, as well as your readers. Thank you so much.

Smile!

  1. Have you ever thought of writing a companion book around your mother’s family tree?

No, but maybe now that you’ve suggested it, I’ll have to go and do that!

I hope you do; I would love to read it!

  1. Is your family name really “Sefer,” which would be very appropriate considering it’s Hebrew for “book”!

No, it isn’t.  But I did choose that name on purpose J

  1. What is the distinction between “I write” and “I tell”?

The “I write” sections are fictional 3rd person constructs.  The “I tell” passages are first person memoir-style touchstones that trace my own struggles with the journey of writing this book.

  1. One your heroines, Miriam, is an excellent seamstress who weaves stories into cloth. This reminded me of the use of henna in HENNA HOUSE – coincidence?

No coincidence!  I’m really interested in women’s traditional arts and crafts and realms of household expertise.  I’m really interested in women’s gathering rituals.  Both henna and sewing/embroidery fit that bill and inspire me as a writer.  Miriam is based in my grandmother Rivka who was rarely without a crochet needle or embroidery needle in her hands.

HennahousepaperbackHENNA HOUSE

  1. What inspired you to write this story?

I was inspired to write Henna House by my love for a close relative.  A Yemenite Jewish woman named Ahoova.  I’m named for Ahoova’s late husband and we have always had a special bond.

  1. Is historic fiction your favorite, both to read and write? If so, could you name some of your favorite works, and writers, of historic fiction? When did you first become interested in it, and what drew you to it?

I’m a very eclectic reader but yes, I do love historic fiction.  I certainly love writing it.  I think that one of the reasons I gravitate towards historical fiction in my work is that I love to learn things as I write.  Doing the research that I need to do to write my books keeps me engaged in my own process.  I grew up reading Gone with the Wind, Little Women, and other works of a different era (other than the one I was living in.)  My list of historical fiction fav’s is quite long, so I’ll just mention a few – The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles, The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, The Piano by Jane Campion and the first Outlander book.  Okay, Outlander also falls into Fantasy, but I think it fits the bill.

  1. Why did you choose to tell us the fate of two main characters at the beginning of the novel, rather than let it unfold?

Henna House is a first person narrative.  I love reading and writing first person narratives, but I always struggle with beginning them—the reason is that I always want to know “What is the reason for this outrageous act of speech?”  Because no one really narrates their life – no one spends 300 or so pages telling you everything that happened to them. So I always feel the need to give my first person narrators a reason why they have decided to do this rather outrageous thing.  The dark fate that two of my main character’s meet is that compelling reason for Adela.  She needs to let her readers know that their fate is what has set her on this journey of narration.

I think that makes a lot of sense, and is a novel approach (no pun intended).

  1. What was the most difficult challenge of writing this book?

Getting it published.  There is nothing easy about getting a book published.  I’m so grateful to Scribner for taking my book out of manuscript pages and binding it between covers.

  1. What was the most satisfying part?

Seeing that beautiful cover image for the first time and then getting the opportunity to meet with readers in my book club visits.

The cover is exquisite.

  1. Any hint as to what your next book will be?

No, I’m still keeping it close to my chest.

Fair enough. I’m already looking forward to reading it, though! Thanks so much for giving us these glimpses into your creative process, Nomi.

Debut Novelist, Laura Shovan: Poetry, Pitch Wars, and the Path to Publication

What better way to start the school year than with my excellent friend, Laura Shovan, and her glorious debut novel-in-verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, coming out April 12, 2016! Here’s the link to pre-order.

Laura Shovan

Laura’s journey to publication began back in 2008, when she first crossed paths with her dream agent, Stephen Barbara. She just didn’t know he would represent her – until five years later. Laura explains here:

I met Stephen at a local SCBWI conference in 2008. We sat down to lunch with author/editor Aimee Friedman and local author Lois Szymanski. I was impressed with how knowledgeable and what a fan of books Stephen was. When the topic of novels in verse came up, it turned out Stephen and I were both fans of Spoon River Anthology. Four years later, I wrote a letter telling him about my MG verse novel, loosely based on Spoon River. I asked if he remembered our conversation. We emailed back and for for about a year and a half before The Call.

Over the years, I heard from several agents who passed because they weren’t interested in verse novels, or felt unsure about the number of voices in TLFG. Because Stephen is a fan of Spoon River, I knew he would get what I was trying to do. My book wasn’t quite ready when he first read the full in 2012. The next 18 months were about staying in touch, making revisions, and being politely persistent. I sent him several emails that said, “I think you’re the right person to represent this book.” Stephen and I are both glad that I didn’t give up. He is a wonderful literary agent and we work well together.

The next turning point in Laura’s journey was one we shared: a little thing called Pitch Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? If you’re an aspiring children’s book writer, do yourself a favor and check out: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-madness. It may change your life; it sure changed Laura’s and mine.

Laura and I entered Pitch Wars together and – as “luck” (read: years of hard work) would have it, we were both selected to be mentored. Afterwards, with a shiny, polished version of her novel-in-verse, Laura was finally ready for Stephen – and he was ready for her.

Q&A:

What inspired you to write this book?Last-Fifth-Grade-cover-323x500

When I began writing the book, I’d been visiting elementary school classrooms as a poet-in-residence for several years. Everywhere I went, each individual class had its own sense of community. The children had certain fixed views of each other. They knew specific facts and traits about one another: who was athletic, who was funny or fashionable, who had little siblings. But writing and sharing their poems often changed those fixed views. A child’s classmates might know her parents are Asian, but when she writes a food poem, we all learn that her family has a beautiful New Year’s Eve tradition of gathering together to make dumplings. Poems provide these little windows into the lives and minds of young writers. I think that’s why Spoon River Anthology was such an inspiration. Edgar Lee Master’s book gave me a model for writing about how people interact with and influence one another. The community of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is one of children. Unlike Spoon River, the characters have a common goal: saving their school.

What kind of revisions were you asked to do, and what was the reasoning behind them?

My editor, Wendy Lamb, suggested adding depth to the Save Our School storyline. I had been reading about food deserts in Baltimore and some of its suburbs, so I added a few poems where Ms. Hill’s class writes about the pros and cons of tearing down their school and adding a supermarket to the neighborhood.

I think there were 20 characters in the manuscript when it sold. We pared that down to 18, which meant merging four characters into two. Wendy is an amazing editor. Originally, the manuscript had six focal characters, who spent more time on-stage than anyone else. One of the most important things she guided me toward was more balance between the characters, so that each one has an impact on the story of the class.

What was the hardest thing you had to change?

The hardest change happened about a year before my manuscript sold. Agent Stephen Barbara read the full and had questions for me about the book, but our conversation fizzled out. I took a break for several months, then went back to look at notes from my CPs. They all said the same thing: They loved the book, but it lacked a strong narrative arc.

During the summer of 2014, I did a complete rewrite. For a few years, I’d been asking myself,”What if the school were being razed?” I’d always tabled the question, because it would mean pulling the whole book apart. But ultimately, that was what made the book work.

laura's notes3

Are any of the characters based on people you know, or knew?

In early drafts, I had two characters based on my children. Both merged with other characters over time. A portion of Mark Fernandez’s story arc is based on a grade school classmate whose mother died. Even though we never hear from Ms. Hill directly, she is loosely based on two friends of mine who are both educators and poets.

Which character is most like you were in 5th grade? (YOU HAVE TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION, AS IT’S MY FAVORITE.) 

That is so difficult, Naomi! I was pretty nerdy and a huge book worm in fifth grade. I was obsessed with The Muppet Show and Wind in the Willows. Let’s say I was a combination of the quieter girls, especially Sydney and Rachel, and Edgar.

When you wrote the poems as each character, did you think more about content or style? In other words, did you deliberately choose a limerick for Katie, and an acrostic for Norah? Or could you just have easily given the limerick to Sydney and an acrostic to Newt?

The first draft of this book included 30 poems. Each poem represented one child in a large fifth grade class. There was no real plot. The poems were character driven. It took me several revisions to find a story that worked well.

All that time, I was refining the characters—adding poems, looking at the cadence of their voices, working on their individual story arcs. Some of the characters do gravitate to form poems because of their personalities. Katie has a great sense of humor, so a limerick was a natural choice for her. Most of Newt’s poems are formal because he likes rules. A Newt acrostic is a great idea, Naomi! I’ll have to get started on bonus materials.Laura's Seating Chart

What was the biggest challenge in writing this book? What was your favorite part of the process?

One of the biggest challenges was changing how I saw the novel. Spoon River Anthology was my initial inspiration. That book is a collection of persona poems, with over 200 characters telling the story of their small town.

When someone suggested that my collection of poems should be a full length novel, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was really hard for me let go of the one poem per character concept. The summer that I lengthened The Last Fifth Grade from collection to novel, I was writing three or more new poems per day over several weeks. (Can you tell I do my best writing in the summer?) It was exhilarating, but definitely challenging.

Did you ever consider writing a poem (or 4) for Ms. Hill? 

Yes, there were a few drafts where Ms. Hill had an opening poem explaining the year-long poetry project. (Insider secret: The opening poem of Spoon River Anthology is titled “The Hill.” It sets up the idea and setting of the book.) I am crazy in love with Sharon Creech’s verse novel LOVE THAT DOG. Miss Stretchberry is a huge presence in that book, but we only see her through Jack’s poems. Let’s say Sharon Creech gave me the confidence to create an off-stage, influential teacher.

You introduce readers to many types of poetry. Do you yourself have a favorite type to write? Which do you find the most difficult?

I don’t have a favorite. Choosing free verse or a traditional form is often dictated by the poem’s content. Some poems need the structure of a form. For instance, in the poem “At the Movies” Shoshanna complains about how controlling her best friend Hannah is. I chose a sonnet for that poem because it is a tightly controlled form. The form mirrors the way Shoshanna is feeling, like she always has to follow Hannah’s rules.

When I write with children, we compare writing in a poetic form to doing a drill if they play a sport, or practicing scales if they play an instrument. Formal poems help you learn rhyme, rhythm, and structure. And sometimes you get a good poem out of the exercise.laura and me2

What is it you love most about writing poetry/being a poet?

Whether I’m working with kids or at an event with other writers, what I love most is being part of the literary community. There are all kinds of poets, but most are keen observers of nature and of human nature. I’m so grateful when schools invite me to visit. Engaging in creative writing with children is a blessing because it values what they bring to their writing: their experiences, their likes and dislikes, their personality traits, and their imaginations. It sends a message to the students that the adults want to hear what they have to say, that we want to know who they are beyond their role as student.

Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Read a lot of poetry. Get involved with your local literary community. Keep at it.

When did your love of poetry begin?

My father used to recite lines from Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to us. But my first memory of a poem is reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It’s such a strong memory that I can still picture sitting in my brother’s bedroom, with the book open on the floor.

In the poem “The Swing,” the speaker describes swinging in an English meadow, and how the view changes as he or she flies through the air. My mother is from a small town in Nottingham, so I had a deep connection with the English countryside. I think what that poem did was what many great poems do, communicate a shared experience between me and the poet. It was a Cupid’s arrow moment. Poetry has had a grip on my heart ever since.

A magical thing happened on the way to Pitch Madness…

“Magic isn’t a game or a trick or a puzzle to be figured out. It’s an experience to be shared.” – Illusions Vick

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A little over a year ago, I participated in my first Pitch contest run by the fabulous Brenda Drake. If you aren’t yet familiar with Pitch Madness, it’s a contest where writers enter for a chance to win requests from participating agents by submitting a 35-word (max) pitch and the first 250 words of their completed manuscript. (Note: If you’re an aspiring children’s book writer, do yourself a favor and check out: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-madness. It may change your life; it sure changed mine.)

So, there I was, frantically struggling to send out short-but-compelling pitches about my middle grade hero, Ethan, an aspiring magician. Unbenownst to me, my good friend and fellow writer, Laura Shovan, retweeted one of my pitches… and a real-live magician responded, offering to give any technical advice needed! His name is Illusions Vick, and he is very magical indeed.

Since we “met,” I participated in a second Brenda Drake contest, this one called Pitch Wars. I was lucky enough to win a mentor – the amazing Veronica Bartles. One thing led to another, and a few months later, I was offered representation by the warm, wise, and wonderful Samantha Bremekamp of Corvisiero Literary Agency.Illusions Vick

After all this magic was thrust upon me, it seemed only fitting that I interview my magician friend, Illusions Vick, for the magical holiday month of December. I hope you enjoy it.

Q&A With Illusions Vick

1) You reference “very challenging” past performances – could you discuss one of them?
For 3 years I was part of the live entertainment at a Movie Theater Multi-plex (24 screens). The theater complex was very popular but had patrons waiting upwards of an hour to see their movie. The theater thought live entertainment would be a good idea. We (myself, another magician and 2 stand up comics) did some crazy stuff. At first it was incredibly challenging, walking into a theater of 500 who have been waiting in their seats for 20 minutes for the film to start, they have no idea what you are there for and then try entertaining. After 6 months we were (somewhat of) a hit (patrons would come in and ask for us and the company tried to replicate what we were doing in their other multi-plexes). For the next 2.5 years it was just myself and 1 stand up comic. We created characters and played characters from hit films (launching a side business of appearing as Professor Snape). We were given free rein to preform what we wanted. We wrote our own scripts, became more skilled at improv and did our own costuming. There is nothing like the experience of performing a new routine 25+ times a day, 3 days a week for live audiences. On top of that we had to keep the material fresh as there were patrons who came to the theater every week.

For 6 months I was the featured Illusionist in a 1940’s theme weekly burlesque review at a nightclub in Washington, DC. Imagine being the magician on before the very popular featured burlesque artist, in front of inebriated patrons, in a DC nightclub where patrons are paying $40 for a seat. 2- 3 times nightly. I was lucky and it went well.

These challenging situations gave me great experience that you can’t get any other way. To be good a magician has to have a place to be bad first, I already had that, these challenges made me a very good performer good very quickly

2) Who are your favorite magicians, and why?
Teller ~ (of Penn & Teller) he’s brilliant, incredibly talented, dedicated and a great man.
S.H. Sharpe ~ Sharpe wrote the most important books ever on performing magic and theory, absolutely brilliant.
Rocco (Silano) ~ One of the most real performers anywhere, the man you see on the stage is the man you get in real life. Had the opportunity to speak with Rocco for a bit after a lecture he gave. Funny, insightful, smart and very well versed in magic.
Denny Haney ~ Denny performed all over the world for 30 years, then semi-retired and opened a magic studio (magic shop). His caring and passion for the art are evident. He won’t sell poor quality effects and he’s more concerned about helping someone in the art than making a buck.

3) Who are your heroes, and why?

Anyone who raises their children well, to be intelligent, caring, decent human beings.
I don’t get star struck and really don’t understand the American obsession with so called celebrities.

4) What is the hardest thing about being a magician?

Overcoming the stereotype of magic being entertainment for children. As great as it is to see children laughing and a spark of imagination light up in their eyes I’ve often thought  adults need magic the most! Adults most need their imaginations sparked, their funny bones tickled, their imaginations engaged, their perspective refreshed and their hearts touched. Adults appreciate a celebration where all their concerns are forgotten. Immersed in a beautiful, funny, amazing and unique art form and entertainment experience.

Magic is an incredible art form. Where but in magic can an artist share miracles, enable others to laugh, to think and feel a spectrum of emotions? A journey into the incredible. A good performer will create and share an atmosphere where anything can and might happen, where the boundaries of normal existence fade away and our minds are wide open. This is entertainment for everyone. I talk about this often and struggle against the typical “magician” stereotype.

The trip home after a great show, it’s an incredible high to being a normal human, well maybe never a normal human.

The other hardest thing about being a magician is the time away from my family.

5) What is the most satisfying, gratifying thing about being a magician?
Making people happy. I have the greatest career in the world. Am invited to all the best parties and events, meet the most interesting people, have fun, share smiles and laughs, touch hearts and tickle funny bones and that’s my career (the part of it everyone gets to see).

6) Do you have any advice for young magicians?
Don’t. Really. It’s a tough life.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have achieved the small amount of success I have.

If you find that you must, there is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist or collector. I find that hobbyist have it the best as they don’t aren’t concerned with bookings, travel, clients, advertising and so and can concentrate solely on the magic. For every minute on stage I invest 90 minutes in rehearsal, practice (yes they are 2 different things) working with clients, marketing, advertising and more. Being a professional magician is a full time business and needs to be treated as such. It’s not only about the time on stage, it’s about what you do to get you to that time.

Also if you must disregard my advice and you still want to become a professional magician LEARN THEATER!! Work with a director for your show, do live theater, plays any stage time you can working with a crew. Look to other arts for inspiration. When you can think about what you want the magic effect to be, then find the way to build it instead of picking up a trick and trying to make your personality fit around it (even though in the beginning that is what you would have to do until you learn methods).

Stay away from walk around or so called “strolling” magic, it cheapens the art. Your work should command an audience, the audience should be there to see you, you shouldn’t be forcing magic on someone to create an audience. It shouldn’t be you walking up to a stranger, interrupting their social interactions and saying something to the effect of “Hi I’m a magician, can I show you a trick?”

Be prepared to work almost every holiday and be away from your family often.

7) What is one of your favorite magical moments to date?
I am so incredibly fortunate to have so many. So many wonderful people and events. I’ll relate one of the most beautiful moments of magic ever in one of my shows… and I didn’t perform it.
I had been hired to perform 45 minutes parlor (magical entertainment) at a 50th Birthday Celebration. The gentleman (Eugene) who hired me to perform for his wife’s 50th birthday celebration and I had been communicating in email, along the way I suggested if he had a small present to present I could show him a magical way to present it. He liked the idea. We took a few minutes before the show to go over the presentation, I believe he had be practicing on his own (when I gave instruction on where to place it he made a remark that lead me to think he had been trying on his own).

I brought Eugene and his wife Katherine up to perform Anniversary Waltz (a card trick that can be a beautiful, fun moment) and when I was done Eugene said he had a trick that might top mine. (I sat down and directed a person with a video camera to a good spot for their special moment)

He did it perfectly, when the flash died away there was a very, very beautiful ring hanging from his hand on a fine chain. There was an amazing outpouring of love and joy, not just from his wife but from everyone present (about 30 guests). The laughter, applause, love and hugs went on all night as part of this very special celebration

Sometimes I say I perform because it makes others better people (when someone is laughing, enjoying themselves, amazed or having fun that is about the best someone can be); that night they made me a better person.

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Thanks so much, Vick, for your generosity and friendship.

Below are links to two of my favorite videos of Illusions Vick in action – I hope you find them as magical as I do!

Illusions Vick with Cub Scouts at Blue and Gold Banquet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKgUkB6fQkI

And his beautiful floating butterflies…

Want more Illusions Vick? Go to: http://www.illusionsbyvick.com/