Bits and Babbles
Imagine my surprise when I read that fellow Marylander – and one-time critique group member – Lauren Abbey Greenberg not only sold her middle grade novel… but to the same publisher who bought my middle grade book as well! A small world indeed! (Hooray for Running Press Kids!!)
I was lucky enough to attend Lauren’s recent book launch at a popular local bookstore in Washington, D.C. called Politics and Prose. Since then, she’s been so busy with school visits and speaking engagements that it was a challenge tracking her down for this interview!
Here is a sampling of the rave reviews Lauren’s debut novel, The Battle of Junk Mountain, has received:
“This absorbing middle-grade read gently but unflinchingly considers the common ground of growing up and growing old.”―Kirkus Reviews
“Realistic descriptions detail what it’s like to live with a hoarder and the reluctance to let go of sentimental treasures. This beautiful story reminds readers that there’s much more to life than material objects.―Booklist
“Themes on intergenerational relationships, grief, and evolving friendships elevate this above the standard summer vacation story.”―School Library Journal
“This coming of age story is a great book for middle grade[rs] . . . who enjoy realistic fiction.”―School Library Connection
“Shayne’s sharp wit combined with her can-do compassion grabs us from the get-go. Her summer of trials and unexpected friendships shines a brilliant light on the power of holding on . . . and letting go”―Jennifer Richard Jacobson, author of Small as an Elephant
“Anyone lucky enough to have a summer friend will instantly relate to Shayne as she navigates honoring old traditions and fostering new paths.”―Beth Vrabel, author of Caleb and Kit and the Pack of Dorks series
Lauren, let’s start with some questions about the book itself first, then segue to general writing questions…
Questions about The Battle of Junk Mountain
- It’s no secret that your cherished childhood summers inspired this story. How much of it is based on real events and real people?
Funny enough, it’s actually based on summers from my adult life! The very first time I visited the state of Maine, I went with my then-boyfriend (now my husband of almost 22 years) and we have returned almost every summer since. It has become a true family affair with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all making the ten-hour trek, and I feel blessed that my children have grown up with that tradition. The people in the story were all created in my head but much of the setting is modeled after real places, such as the Cod Café, Quayle’s Market, and the Cedar Island Flea Market. I will say that the scene in the Cod Café’s kitchen, where Shayne dumps salad dressing all over herself, was flat-out lifted from my life when I bussed tables as a young teen. Yep, it was quite a mess.
Thank you for your candor.
- One of the most unique and compelling features of your book is Bea’s hoarding. How did you come up with this? Was it a key element in the story all along? And did you know from the beginning that it was tied in to the loss of her husband?
Grandma Bea began simply as a yard sale enthusiast, who would delight in finding hidden treasures amongst the junk. But with each revision, I found that her hobby was morphing into a hoarding problem. Hoarding, of course, is often a symptom of a deeper mental health problem, like depression, anxiety, or OCD, and can be triggered by traumatic events such as a death in the family. Bea was assigning significant value to insignificant items, so I needed to dig deep to figure out the psychology behind her behavior. I also discovered an interesting connection between Bea’s hoarding and Shayne’s friendship troubles, as both characters let the power of memory control them, which kept them stuck in the past.
Definitely a very interesting parallel!
- One of my favorite characters is Linc, the boy obsessed with Civil War history. Have you known anyone like him? Have you attended any Civil War reenactments?
Linc is one of my favorite characters, too! I have not known anyone like him, but I felt that if he was the son of a reenactor and he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, then he really had to own it; no apologies. I did work on a couple film productions about the Civil War and the American Revolution, and I remember attending an American Revolution reenactment once as part of a location scout, although Linc would say that doesn’t count. For research, I also paid a visit to a few antique stores that specialized in Civil War paraphernalia.
Hmm. Sounds like material for a sequel…
- What was the biggest surprise for you as a writer as you revised the book? Were there any major changes you hadn’t expected when you first started it?
I didn’t set out to write a book about hoarding, that’s for sure! My early drafts were heavy on setting and not much else. I remember a critique partner telling me, “your writing is lovely but there’s nothing going on.” I had to learn how to raise the stakes and take my characters to uncomfortable places. I would often ask myself, “What is this book really about?” It’s a simple question, isn’t it? But for me, those underlying truths weren’t clear until much later in the revision process.
I suspect that’s not uncommon. Sometimes the simplest truths are the hardest to grasp (clears throat and covers mirror).
- Can you give us any hints of your next project?
My next project is another realistic contemporary middle grade and is inspired by the mid-Atlantic derecho of 2012.
Sounds exciting; can’t wait for it to come out!
Questions about Writing
- When did you first start writing this novel?
The Battle of Junk Mountain was born out of a class I took with the Institute of Children’s Literature back in 2011. I had an instructor who mentored me through the first draft (working title: The Treasures of Thomas Cove), and then I was on my own to revise, revise, revise. I had so much to learn and it took me five years before I felt the manuscript was ready for sub. Once I found my agent, Amy Jameson of A+B works, everything moved a little bit quicker. She pitched the novel the summer of 2016 and a few months later I had a book deal.
In other words, you’re one of those overnight successes…
- As a debut novelist, what was the most challenging aspect of your journey to publication?
The most challenging aspect of the journey was the glacial pace of it all. You write, you share pages, you have your first chapter critiqued at a conference, you revise some more, etc. The seasons change and the years tick by. And, of course, you’re wondering if putting in all this time and energy is worth it. At first, your friends and family are excited for you because, how cool, you’re writing a novel. Yay! Sure, they’ll ask you how it’s going from time to time, but then after a while they stop asking, because you have no answers for them. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t want all my hard work to end up in a drawer. People say you shouldn’t write just to be published, but sorry not sorry, I had an endgame I wanted, and I’m beyond thrilled that I reached that goal.
I understand COMPLETELY.
- What has been the most rewarding part so far?
Gosh, so many things! My first reward was my finished manuscript. When I got to that point where I felt I couldn’t make it any better, I took a moment to soak in that achievement. I had created a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end, and it didn’t stink. After signing on with a publisher, though, I have to say the rewards have been plentiful. Everything from working with my supportive editorial team, to having input on cover design, to receiving that first author blurb and trade review. And last but not least, seeing young readers holding your finished book in their hands. It’s an incredible feeling.
Insert sigh of longing here.
- What advice do you have for upcoming debut novelists?
The required flip from introverted writer to extroverted promoter is pretty remarkable and all-consuming. Promote! Present! Post! It’s blood pressure-raising at times, but exciting, too. Be proud of your work, be kind to yourself, and enjoy the ride.
Sounds like excellent advice!
- What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Try to stay Zen and celebrate the small achievements along the way: a new plot idea, the completion of a first draft, a rejection letter with a handwritten note from an editor or agent. It’s not unusual to be circling the wagons for a long time, but with perseverance and patience, you will get there.
Lauren, thanks so much for sharing your story, and your journey, with us.
I admit it. I saw Erwin Madrid’s exquisite cover for CALEB AND KIT, and couldn’t stop looking at it. Then I opened the book – and couldn’t stop reading it.
Beth Vrabel has done a remarkable thing: created a story about a 12-year-old boy living with cystic fibrosis, without letting his disease take over the story. She depicts what it’s like to live with it (both for Caleb and for his family), with such grace, finesse and restraint that we see past his challenges and see him for the amazing child he is. One of my favorite things about the book is Caleb’s love of heroes – especially his favorite, Captain America.
This exchange comes near the end of the book:
Shelly (a girl his age): Why do you like Captain America so much?
Caleb: Because he was born sick and weak, but became strong.
Shelly: No, he was born strong. His body was weak.
To me, this powerful distinction epitomizes Beth’s book. Both it, and Caleb, will stay with me for a long time.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. CALEB AND KIT has been selected as:
Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year (2018)
A VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers 2017 Selection
Finalist for the 2017 Cybil Awards, (Middle Grade Fiction)
Diverse Books Club pick (February 2018)
And here are a few of the many soaring reviews:
“…Caleb is an exquisitely imperfect protagonist… reminiscent of Katherine Paterson’s classic Bridge to Terabithia… Hand to readers looking for a novel about both the magic and the pain of friendship. ― School Library Journal
“A realistic story with strong, recognizable characters that doesn’t reduce cystic fibrosis to a tragedy.” ― Kirkus Reviews
“Filled with smart, witty, and magical writing, Kit and Caleb, and those around them, come to vibrant life in this heartbreaking story about the ties that bring people together, and the difficulties of facing the truth.”― Booklist
“A compelling story of two struggling kids making their own safe haven.” ―Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“A can’t-put-it-down tale… From the beautiful cover to the last sentence, this book is a favorite to savor and share.”―Bibi Belford, author of Canned and Crushed
“Having a disability myself, my heart broke for Caleb who wants nothing more than to feel like a normal twelve-year-old kid – at any cost.”―Kerry O’Malley Cerra, author of Just a Drop of Water
“…Caleb’s heroism is the real deal. He’s determined, courageous, and witty despite his unusual physical challenges… Readers young and old will find this a unique novel well-deserving of a permanent place on the family bookshelf.” ―Melissa Hart, author of Avenging the Owl
I hope you read this interview with Beth, then treat yourself to CALEB AND KIT, a book as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. After that, be sure to check out Beth’s latest book, SUPER DORKS, which just happens to come out TODAY (also known as May 8th, 2018)!
What – or who – was the inspiration behind this story?
I wanted to write a story about friendship, particularly when they have to end.
Ending friendships is painful and confusing, and something we struggle with throughout our lives and relationships. I still carry guilt for how I pushed a friend out of my life when I was twelve. I’ve discovered writing is a way to sort out my emotions—plus it’s the closest thing to a redo there is.
CALEB AND KIT also is a story about information and our access to it. Caleb lives with cystic fibrosis, and this chronic, fatal illness affects every aspect of his life. Caleb understands that, he knows what it means to have CF, why he needs to be cautious with his health, and how important it is to keep up with his treatments. The truth is painful and harsh, but knowing it makes him strong. He’s educated and informed.
Then there’s Kit. She’s surviving on fairy tales given to her by her grandmother as explanations for her mom’s neglect. Only now Grandma has passed away, and the stories aren’t enough to keep her safe.
Could you tell us about your research? How long did it take? How did you find people to share their stories with you?
The research aspect of CALEB AND KIT was without a doubt the longest, hardest aspect of writing this book. I did months of research, of story crafting and character building. By the time I actually sat down to write, Caleb was practically screaming to tell his story.
As the mom of a child who lives with a little-understood disability (my daughter has albinism/visual impairment), I’m extremely cognizant of how misrepresentation can be even more damaging than a lack of representation. I had to get this right, particularly with regards to cystic fibrosis.
I read every article I could find, scoured the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s website, watched countless YouTube testimonials from young people who live with CF. But to really understand CF, I had to connect with people who live with it every moment of every day. I put out a call on social media, asking if anyone in the CF community would be willing to answer questions.
William Marler, an award-winning filmmaker and artist, wrote back right away. He answered every question I had and also shared a movie he had created called Pep Mask. It so beautifully captures the nightly ritual of breathing treatments while weaving in a deeper understanding of just how important this seemingly routine act is not only to him but to his parents. He and I quickly became friends, and I’m forever grateful to CALEB AND KIT for that friendship.
I also heard from Charlee Munn, a British mom, and her son, Jack, who has CF. They provided incredible insight and also are now my friends.
Maybe most surprisingly, I heard from a friend in my hometown. Here was someone with whom I spent countless hours at the playground as our children played, and I had no idea her son also lived with CF.
I find this is often the case – when we reach out to people, we discover all sorts of unexpected, and powerful connections.
The insight they provided was immeasurable. Those conversations also are behind little things, such as how even a vase of flowers could be a problem or how CF patients would be separated in a waiting room, that added authenticity to Caleb’s story.
More importantly, it helped me move beyond the scary statistics surrounding CF and instead see the people who manage it with full and happy lives.
I think it’s really helpful for readers unfamiliar with CF to learn these things, to raise awareness.
“I wanted to be like Kit, to see stories everywhere… to make up a new world, one where I wasn’t sick and she was magic.”
Where did Kit – who Caleb describes as “shiny and brave, like a balloon just before bursting” – come from?
Oh, sweet Kit.
She’s created a world of her own, where she can become friends with birds. Where fairies watch over her as their princess. Where righting a wrong is as simple as offering a ring of dandelions.
I think there’s a little bit of Kit in all of us. When the truth is unbearable, part of us yearns for it all to be out of our hands, the work of magic to which we might someday escape.
Beautifully put – and poignant.
How much of Caleb is based on real children you met/spoke with, and how much is from your own imagination?
I spend a lot of time around children, but I think Caleb is a total work of imagination. That being said, of course he’s also got a lot of me in him, too. I remember thinking I had everything figured out as a kid, only to later realize now how myopic my perspective had been.
I suspect many of us can relate to that!
What was the most challenging aspect of this book?
The hardest part was ensuring that I wasn’t writing a book about chronic illness, but instead a book about a kid who happens to live with chronic illness. Here’s something I tell my children a lot: Everyone has a story, just like everybody faces challenges; but our stories are so much more than our challenges.
Beth, I love this so much!
What was the most rewarding?
My understanding of what it means to a have full life has forever changed. In one of our first email exchanges, I asked Will what he wishes more people understood about CF. He wrote: “I want people to be aware that CF is not the end of a long life, it’s only the start of one. …CF has taught me that if things are difficult to achieve, they are only more worth achieving.”
Such an important message, both for people struggling with CF, and people who meet/know/love them.
Were there any surprises along the way?
Yes! The ending was a surprise. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end until I wrote the last chapter, which never happens for me! Usually I know the ending before I’ve figured out the beginning.
I did have a mental picture—a boy standing on a sun-drenched rock—but I didn’t know what he would be saying or who would be with him until I got there, too.
That’s really interesting… and conveniently leads to my next question!
We spoke about 1st versus 3rd person for this book – could you please share the reasons you wrote in each, and why you ultimately chose first person?
Sure! I wrote the first chapter of CALEB AND KIT before I truly launched into researching cystic fibrosis—this was what my agent used to pitch the project. It was in first person, seen through Caleb’s eyes. I then put the book aside while I researched.
What I learned about this disease broke my heart—the statistics about shortened life expectancy, the overwhelming cost of medications, the pain these kids shoulder.
About this time, I started to think about putting the story in third person. I didn’t think of it as being connected to the research—I told myself it was me looking for a different way of telling the story.
I floated the idea of switching to third person to my friend Cecy Robson. Also a writer, Cecy saw through me, saw that what I really wanted was a barrier to Caleb, and told me to knock it off. If it hurts, if it’s hard, it’s important, she said. And, of course, she was right.
All writers need a friend like Cecy!
I leaned into the research, but I also was mindful to craft other aspects of Caleb’s life—his love for superheroes, his jealousy over his perfect brother, his yearning for independence, his physical awkwardness and his incredibly compassionate heart.
Soon I stopped seeing CF and instead just saw Caleb, a boy who happens to have CF. And Caleb wanted to tell his story himself.
Yes, this is exactly what I love most about your wonderful book!
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Our pastor has this saying: “Be the kind of person who sees the oak tree in an acorn.” Story acorns are all around us. But for them to truly sprout, they need to stretch deep as well as grow upright. They need roots. As writers, our experiences provide all the fertile ground for our stories—that’s what’s going to give them strength and nourishment. Be willing to root your stories in your own truth.
Could you please tell us about your next book?
I have two books releasing this year!
SUPER DORKS, the third in the PACK OF DORKS series, hits shelves May 8. The series is about a group of misfits and nerds who recognize the hierarchy of middle school and opt to band together in a pack of their own, even if it is a pack of dorks. SUPER DORKS features an accidental goat napping, a devastating injury, an epic martial arts takedown, a middle school election, a human turtle and even a geriatric wedding.
In October, look for THE RECKLESS CLUB. This is about a Nobody, an Athlete, a Flirt, a Drama Queen and a Rebel who have to spend the last summer day before their freshman year volunteering in a nursing home in lieu of detention. All the action takes place in the course of this one day as the five kids move beyond their labels to reveal what they’ve done, why they did it, and what they’re going to do now.
Can’t wait to read them! I’m going to add them to my TBR list right now! Beth, thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions. Both you, and your book, are truly beautiful.
I am delighted to have a second interview with my dear friend, award-winning poet (and, I suspect, soon-to-be award-winning novelist) Laura Shovan. Laura’s debut middle grade novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was an NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the year, and won a Cybils Award for poetry, as well a Nerdy Book Club award. And guess what? The paperback version comes out TOMORROW! (Otherwise known as April 10th, 2018, if you’re reading this on a different date.)
Laura’s next book, Takedown, is a novel told in alternating points of view and comes out on June 19th. It’s the perfect middle grade read and will appeal to boys and girls; athletes and non-athletes; and anyone who loves relatable characters. Mikayla (aka Mickey) and Lev are complex and sympathetic first-person narrators, and you can’t help but care about, and cheer for, them throughout the book.
Laura, thank you again for doing this – my first two-timer!
I’m hoping you’ll be my first three-timer, too, when your next one comes out.
I hope so too. Working on two new books as we speak.
Let’s start with some questions about your newest novel:
What was your inspiration for Takedown?
“No one warned me being eleven was going to get this complicated.” (Lev)
Our son was a wrestler for many years, from age seven through middle school. When he joined a competitive travel team, our family schedule began to revolve around wrestling season. Takedown helped me think about the ways that intense participation in a sport can impact kids’ relationships with parents and with their friends who aren’t on the team.
This is definitely relatable – and, I have a hunch, not only for sports. How about theatre kids and musicians? Sometimes their schedules are pretty intense too (I speak from experience).
Did you plan to use alternating points of view from the start?
“All my good feelings about this season, my plans for making it to States, they disappeared when Mickey Delgado walked into our wrestling room.” (Lev)
“There’s no crying on the mat.” (Mickey)
I did not. My son was still wrestling when I began writing small poems and observations during tournaments and practices. Takedown was always going to be about a boy and his nemesis, a tough kid from a rival team. But I put the idea aside for several years. When I started up again, I was working on a scene about a dual meet (where two teams wrestle against each other for points), and Mickey’s character appeared. Her voice was clear and insistent from the start. I knew right away that she would have equal billing to Lev. And I’m happy to say that the sport has undergone a change since my son’s days on the mat. Girls’ wrestling is growing. In many youth leagues, girls and boys compete against each other.
That’s really interesting. I guess Mickey spoke up for herself from the very beginning! Was it equally easy to write for Lev as for Mikayla?
“When kids of different races wrestle each other, nobody cares. And wrestlers with disabilities. Everyone cheers for them. Why am I ‘that weird girl who wants to wrestle with the boys?’” (Mickey)
Lev and Mikayla (Mickey) have such different voices. I wouldn’t say one was easier than the other, but I had to make sure that they sounded different on the page. When I was working on a chapter in one voice — let’s say Lev’s — I would go back and read his previous two chapters out loud before writing his next scene.
That sounds like a very wise approach. What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
“…this sport is the glue that keeps our family together.” (Mickey)
The most challenging and rewarding part was relearning the sport. I’d been away from wrestling for five years before starting Takedown. My research process involved reading books and articles, interviewing wrestlers and their parents, attending meets and tournaments, and watching documentaries. I had a lot of support from the Maryland State Wrestling Association. Two highlights were: seeing Olympic gold medalists Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis (the first U.S. woman to win gold in the sport!) run a clinic with kids; and talking to Mary Holmes, an internationally ranked brown belt in jiu-jitsu, about what it’s like to be a woman competing in a traditionally male contact sport.
Wow – that’s amazing! How common are female wrestlers in middle school? Did you get to meet/interview any?
“If I win today, I’m going to take my trophy home, paint its fingernails pink, and give it pink knee socks just like mine.” It actually sounds like fun, a project for me and Kenna. We’ll take one of the trophies and give it a makeover.” (Mickey)
I met a few girls on Maryland State’s youth team, who were heading to a national competition, and their coach. Jay LaValley, former head of MSWA, was and is an amazing advocate for getting girls into the sport. I had a chance to attend the very first Maryland State girls championship tournament, which became a scene in the book. There’s great information about the sport at the Wrestle Like a Girl foundation’s website. (http://www.wrestlelikeagirl.org/) I’ll be donating copies of Takedown to their summer programs for girls.
One last quote, which I think sums up this fantastic book in a nutshell:
Lev: “We’re here to wrestle, not change the fabric of the universe.”
Mickey: “Maybe it needs a new fabric.”
And now for some general writing questions:
Now that you have TWO(!) wonderful books under your belt, I’d love for you to compare the journeys. First, could you please discuss writing a novel versus a novel-in-verse?
What a great question! Poetry is my go-to form of writing. I love the freedom of poetry — being able to play with language, ideas, and what the words look like on the page. For The Last Fifth Grade, that sense of play was wonderful. If I had an idea for a poem or a scene, I could write a short poem, or two, or three, to see what worked best. Working on a traditional novel was a challenge for me. Every chapter, every scene, meant I was committing to several pages of writing! That made me nervous at first, but I enjoyed the expansiveness of prose.
What a great answer. 🙂 What is the most important thing you’ve learned so far about the journey to publication?
I’ve learned the value of community. The best thing I did as a pre-published and debut author was to get involved in a few kidlit groups: the Poetry Friday blogging community, the PitchWars mentorship program, and the Sweet 16s debut author group. Support from all three groups saw me through some rough patches, and they’ve been my best cheerleaders when I’ve had news to celebrate. Volunteering my time, especially as a PitchWars mentor, has given me an opportunity to coach others on their path to publication.
(When Laura says, “coach others,” she’s including me, for sure.) What is the most surprising thing that’s happened to you on this journey? And the most gratifying?
Surprising (in the best way): When a fifth grade class dressed up as Ms. Hill’s students from The Last Fifth Grade and sent me pictures. Their costumes were awesome! Most gratifying was receiving the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor award. Arnold Adoff is one of my favorite children’s poets and has long been advocating for diversity and social justice in kidlit. I teach his poems during school residencies and consider him a poet-hero. I burst into tears when I got the news.
Amazing!! What is the most challenging aspect for you of starting a new project? Speaking of new projects, anything you can tell us about your next one?
I’m working on a collaborative novel middle grade right now. That’s a new adventure with a new set of challenges. The process of brainstorming together and supporting each other is exciting. My co-writer, Saadia Faruqi, and I have to negotiate between plotting and pantsing (Being a plotter or a pantser — writing by the seat of your pants: https://thewritepractice.com/plotters-pantsers/). She’s teaching me how to outline and I am (I hope) coaching her to trust the revision process. It’s set at an after-school cooking club. As part of my research, I’m learning how to cook Southeast Asian dishes like chicken masala. Best research ever!
If you ever need help with that kind of research, please keep me in mind. Laura, thanks again so much for taking time from your jam-packed schedule. I hope, and predict, Takedown will fly off the shelves, and be loved by many readers.
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?
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.
I 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 did. Plot 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!
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…
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?
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?
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:
Author page: https://www.christinakellyauthor.com/
GOOD KARMA is now available from HarperCollins:
… and Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, or wherever books are sold.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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:
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