March 2008


Daphne Grab is the author of Alive and Well in Prague New York, a wonderful debut that will be released  this June.  We are lucky enough to have her here for an interview, and I hope you all enjoy it!

Matisse is a city girl originally who moves to the country. You grew up in upstate New York and eventually moved to the city. How did your opposite experience influence your writing about Matisse’s move? 
I’m in love with New York City but a part of me will always be a country girl (despite my fear of spiders) and I thought it would be fun to write something that explored those two sides of my personality. I do prefer city living but it was pretty easy to draw on my small town love, even though I’ve lived in cities most of my adult life.

Do you and Matisse have a lot in common? In what way? 

Matisse is so the opposite of how I was in high school.  She is confident, outspoken and could care less what anyone thinks of her.  I was always second guessing myself and getting worked up worrying about what other people thought of me.  I’ve gotten a little more assertive as I’ve gotten older and I do worry less what people think of me.  Or so I thought before I wrote a book and had to worry about reviews!
What are you writing right now? Would you ever consider writing a sequel to Alive and Well in Prague, New York? 

I am working on two things now: a middle grade coming of age story that is almost done, and a teen book that is barely started.  The teen book will be about a girl who has the opposite experience of Matisse- she and her family will leave their small town for a summer in the big city.  Like Matisse she has a past she wants to forget and at first hates her new home.
I’d love to visit Matisse again but I kind of like where I’ve left her so I’m not planning a sequel right now.  But I never say never!     

Why did you choose to write about a character whose father is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease? 
My dad had ALS which is similar to Parkinson’s: both are neurological and strip the person of their ability to care for themselves.  I wanted to write about how difficult neurological illnesses are for entire families but not write the story of my own experience, so I chose something similar but different.

Matisse’s mother is a painter, her father a sculptor, and her first friend in Prague, Violet, is a poet. Lots of artsy people! If you could be talented in some other artistic medium (dance, photography, whatever) besides writing novels, what would you choose? 

Good question!  I cannot even draw a good stick figure and I’d love to be able to really make images come alive on paper.

Who are your favorite visual artists? 

Van Gogh is my favorite though I also like the Hudson River painters- I grew up in the Hudson Valley so their work resonates for me.

Why did you choose to write for a young adult audience? Would you want to write for either children or adults? 

For whatever reason the stories I think of are teen and middle grade. Possibly because that tween/teen part of me is still very much alive, but also maybe because in those years books meant the most to me.  All my favorite authors are the ones I read from ages 10-15 and those are the stories I could tell you from memory because I read them so many times.  I should also add that 90% of the books I read now are still YA!

What came to you first when writing Alive and Well in Prague, New York: character, plot, or something else? 

Another good question!  I’d have to say the basic idea of writing about a girl whose dad is ill came first.  I wanted to write about what it’s like to see a parent lose the ability to control their own body because it’s such a profound and life changing thing for everyone involved. But of course the thing about that experience is that it’s grounded in all the other parts of life: friends, social stuff, guys, school. So the story just grew from there.

You’ve done quite a bit of travelling. What is your favorite place in the world that you’ve been to, and favorite that you have yet to see in person? 

China was amazing but I’m going to have to say Colombia was my favorite place to be.  I think it was all the salsa dancing!

Favorite places yet to see: there are a lot!  Top two are Morocco and Egypt.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Finish what you write.  When I first started writing creatively I got good at writing scenes and chapters, but learning to carry a whole story from beginning to end, with each character having an arc, was a whole different ball game.  And it took a lot of practice, with some really bad manuscripts and a lot of revision along the way!

What’s your writing process like?

I write from an outline.  Most authors I know don’t, but for me thinking out the story ahead of time makes it easier to sit down and write each day.  I’m not sitting down to write a book, I’m just sitting down to write the next scene on my outline.  I also like knowing ahead of time where I am going with the story.

Who are some of your biggest writing influences? 

There are a ton but I’d have to say the number one is Beverly Cleary.  I love that she writes a very specific story about a person so three dimensional you feel you know them, and then through that very individual story touches on profound universal themes, like learning to be true to yourself.  I see myself reflected in her books and I feel reaffirmed in my own life when I read her.

What are your five favorite things besides books and writing? (This can be anything–places, activities, people, whatever.) 

1. my family (including my cats)

2. visiting new places and old friends

3. the beach at Cape Cod

4. movies

5. high quality chocolate chip cookies (dairy free since I’m allergic)

Now ask yourself a question (and answer it). 

Q- How totally psyched are you to be interviewed by the awesome Jocelyn?

A-So very psyched!

Thanks Jocelyn!!

Thanks, Daphne!

Maximum Ride: The Final Warning is the fourth book in this series about a “flock” of kids who were genetically modified so that their DNA mixed with avian DNA, and they now have wings and can fly (and some of them have other special abilities, too). Fourteen-year-old Max is the leader of the group, and she is also the narrator of the story. In this latest installment in the series, the flock is off to Antarctica to work with scientists to combat global warming, but, of course, as always, there’s an enemy on their trail.

This is a fast-paced, exciting story with an interesting premise. It’s well-written, and I love the character of Max. The Maximum Ride series is great for reluctant readers, and it’s quite entertaining, and at times quite thought-provoking as well. This book was a little heavy-handed with its environmentalist message (a message I do agree with, but a little more subtlety would have been nice). I certainly take issue with some of James Patterson’s recent comments about children’s and YA literature, but this is a review of the book, not the author, and the book itself is certainly worth reading, especially for fans of the series. I think the way this series came about is a little strange (James Patterson apparently got the idea from one of his other books–I guess that’s what happens when you have ghostwriters, which I suspect he does though I have no proof of that, because the similarities are really strange, and couldn’t he at least have changed the main character’s name if they’re not the same people?) , but it’s a quick adventure that I most definitely enjoyed every page of, and I do recommend it.

Deb Caletti is the author of five wonderful YA novels, most recently The Fortunes of Indigo Skye. She’s a very talented author, and if you haven’t read her books yet, what are you waiting for?! I was lucky enough to get to interview Deb, and I hope you enjoy it:

I’ve heard it’s like choosing a favorite child, but do you have a favorite of your books? If so, why?
It is like choosing a favorite child. But my favorite books are actually the ones that remind me most of my own life with my kids. “Honey, Baby, Sweetheart” has a lot of us in it, as does “The Fortunes of Indigo Skye.”

What is the most interesting way in which the inspiration for one of your novels has come to you?

A couple of cups of French Roast are usually my best source of inspiration. But I think the most interesting way one of my novels came about was on a field trip with my son’s orchestra to watch the Seattle Symphony rehearse. I sat in the plush, red seat and watched the white, billowing sleeves of the symphony conductor, and those sleeves became responsible for WILD ROSES. The intensity of their movement made me think about the passion involved in creativity, and the role – good and bad – that passion plays in our lives.

Would you want to unexpectedly acquire two and a half million dollars the way Indigo did? If you did suddenly have that money, what would you do with it?
Could I possibly say no to that? Of course I would want to acquire two and a half million dollars! I don’t know exactly what I would do with it, but I hope I would “have money” in a way that was caring and responsible to others around me.

How did The Fortunes of Indigo Skye change from first draft to final book?

There are always nips and tucks in the editing process, but generally the book remains basically whole. I think the biggest thing I changed was extending the time that Indigo became dissatisfied with Trevor. He leapt on the money a little too eagerly at first.

What is your writing process like? Do you outline, or wing it? Fill things in randomly, or write linearly?

I stand at the literary ledge and let go. In my very early days of writing I used to outline. But then I discovered that if I succumbed to circumstance and the outpourings of my own weird subconscious, some sort of magic happened. It’s the same process of discovery I feel when I read a book – an unfolding.

You are very talented at creating great characters and showing the relationships between them. Do real people inspire any of your characters? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers trying to brush up their characterization skills?

Sure, real people inspire your characters, but we don’t usually like to admit that. We’d rather stay somewhat safe behind the “any resemblance to actual people is unintentional” blurb that comes on the copyright page. That said, someone I know well can inspire a character, but so can someone I just sit behind for an hour at one of my son’s soccer games. It’s all about observation and a curiosity about why people behave the way they do. Human behavior is something I’m desperate to understand, for my work, but also for my life. I study behavior, take it in, and try to convey it as honestly as possible. That’s my most basic but truest “advice.”

Are you like any (or all) of your main characters? In what ways?
I’m probably like all of my characters in some way, even the bad ones. Mostly, though, my characters and I both tend to be flawed but good intentioned, trying to do the best we can in our world. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Why do you write for teens? Would you ever want to write for children or adults?

I don’t think of my teen readers as TEEN READERS. I think of them as people. I try to address issues we all, adults and teens, face in much the same way – love, identity, fear, what we hunger for and where we find a sense of home. I have a great deal of adult readers, too, I think, because of this blurry line, and I think my teen readers can feel the respect that this lack of differentiation gives. I don’t feel the “You, teen Me, adult” thing, and I this seems to strengthen my relationship with all my readers. We’re all just people doing life.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished my next book, “The Secret Life of Prince Charming.” It’s about a girl who unites with her sister and the step-sister she’s never met to return objects that her father has taken – from all the women he’s ever loved.

Who are your writing influences?

Probably everyone I’ve ever read, from the writers of Little Bear and Curious George, to C.S. Lewis and Carolyn Keene, right on up to Flannery O’Connor and Hemingway. Every book influences.

Now ask yourself a question (and answer it).

Q. What do you want for lunch, Deb?
A. Cheeseburger, onion rings, diet Coke.

Jenny Davidson‘s first YA novel, The Explosionist, takes place in an alternate version of Edinburgh in 1938. Sophie’s world diverges from our own when Napoleon wins at Waterloo in 1815, though there are other discrepancies that cannot be traced back to that battle–most importantly, the paranormal element of this book. Spiritualism is alive and well in this world, and actually real and sometimes state-sponsored. It’s quite possible to speak to the dead here, though not everyone can do it, and there are certainly plenty of frauds and skeptics.

Sophie is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who lives with her Great-aunt Tabitha in Edinburgh. Oh, how to explain this book! All of the political intrigue (to which Sophie is privy–often by eavesdropping–because of her great-aunt’s high status) and the ways in which this world differs from our own would take pages to explain properly (which is why you’re lucky there’s a lengthy novel about it). Suffice to say, Sophie and her friend Mikael soon find themselves involved in various mysteries and plots on which the fate of Scotland and the rest of the world hangs. Seances, explosions, terrorist groups, murder, politics, and various other things are involved. This world (like our own in 1938, though for different reasons) is on the brink of a war that will shape the coming years, a war that could be avoidable.

Like I said, this is a difficult book to explain, but not difficult to finish–I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough! There’s suspense and intrigue and mystery and adventure and even a bit of romance. I was caught up in it all from the beginning, and now I absolutely cannot wait for a sequel–which is too bad for me, as this book isn’t even out until July, so there’ll be quite some time before any continuation of the adventures of Sophie and Mikael. I admire the way Jenny Davidson ended this in just the right place–readers are anxious to find out what happens next, and there’s no doubt that, barring exceptional circumstances, there will be a sequel, but there’s still a decent enough ending place so that the book actually ends rather than just stopping the way some series books do.

The Explosionist is an amazing book! Jenny Davidson is such a talented writer, able to make more than 450 pages absolutely fly by. The complicated twists and turns of the plot are never overwhelmingly confusing, but just enough to keep your brain busy. I quite enjoyed all of the characters, who were refreshingly real and human. This is an unputdownable, read-it-in-one-sitting kind of book, a remarkable feat for one so long. And remarkable really does describe this novel! I was so impressed and completely in awe of Jenny Davidson’s skill the whole time I was reading it. And when I finished, my first thought was of course a desire for more! Seriously, read this book. If you have any way of doing so, get ahold of a copy now, and if not, well, you’ll just have to wait for July.

As you may know, I think Rachel Cohn is pretty brilliant, and I count Gingerbread as one of my all-time favorite books (and love her other books, too, that’s just my personal favorite). So I was more than a little excited to have the chance to interview her, and you should be equally thrilled to get to read this!

You wrote three unpublished novels before Gingerbread. What were those about? Why do you think they weren’t published? Would you ever re-visit those stories?

The first two novels I wrote were adult fiction. The third eventually was
published — The Steps. (It was bought after Gingerbread.)

As for those first two novels, I am, finally, twelve years (!) after the fact of finishing it, going back and re-writing that first one as a YA. But I loved this book so much, and tried so many times to re-write it, always unsuccessfully, that I finally had to acknowledge that it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t re-write it, but my voice had changed SO MUCH since that first book, that it was no longer even possible to go back to that original book. But the premise of that first book is just irresistible to me as a writer, so what I am doing now, after taking almost a year and a half away from writing at all, is going back to that original premise, and writing a whole new book. New characters, new voice, new situations, but old premise. I’m loving how it’s going so far and really excited about it — the new-old thing has kind of re-energized me!

Do you see any of yourself in any or all of your main characters? In what way?

I’m going to borrow from David Levithan’s response to this question and say that all of them are based on me, and none of them. For me, I don’t consciously model characters on myself (the books would be pretty boring if I did), but certainly pieces of me creep into my characters, whether I try for that or not. Typically, characters end up sounding like me — e.g., the way the Cyd Charisse character talks is sometimes how I sound.

The character Miles in You Know Where to Find Me is probably the first character I’ve ever written that most closely resembles how I think; she’s more articulate than me, but her thought process mirrors my own.

But while voices can tend to mimic my own, the characters themselves are their own people — their own lives, their own hearts, their own situations.

You live in New York City, and some of your stories also take place there. What do you love most about New York?

Truthfully, I most love that I can order anything to be delivered to my apartment any time of the day or night.

Beyond that, I love the energy of NYC. It’s a place that, for better or worse, is so much ALIVE. As a writer, I find that very stimulating. But it helps that I have a nice quiet apartment to retreat to, as well.

Why do you write for a young adult (and slightly younger with The Steps and Two Steps Forward) audience?

Because adults are boring and weird.

You have written books by yourself, and two with David Levithan. What was different about the experience of writing with a partner as opposed to by yourself–the best part, and the most difficult part?

The best and most difficult parts are the same for me — placing your characters in another person’s hands and letting that person determine what happens next with those characters’ hearts and minds. Sometimes that is incredibly exhilarating and inspiring, to see where the other person will go, and other times it’s completely frustrating, if you don’t agree with where the characters have landed. This is why I think the most important component of collaboration is trust — you have to really feel that for the other person in order for the work to succeed. Chemistry between the collaborators is awful helpful, too — in our case it was a complete surprise, but a nice one, for sure!

You love music, as can be seen in your books in various ways. What are some of your favorite songs right now? What songs have a special significance to you?

This is a great question but a hard one, because there are SO MANY songs residing in my heart and soul right now, but the flows change by minute, by hour, by day. Some days I need Dusty Springfield all day long to cope, and other days I shuffle randomly between pop, latin, honky tonk, and disco (always disco).

If you want to know what’s spinning most for me lately, here’s a recap of what I bought recently when I was in Los Angeles and made a trip to Amoeba Records: the Amy Winehouse debut album (I finally gave up on resisting this, although I still hate that Rehab song, but love all the others), an old Arthur Alexander compilation (loves me some Southern soul), the “Halos and Horns” Dolly Parton album because i love her “Stairway to Heaven” cover, the new Erykah Badu, the new Raveonettes and Cat Power albums, and this recently reissued album by Boscoe (70s soul) that I keep hearing on my favorite radio station, KALX-Berkeley (that I listen to on the Internet all the time, including right now).

What songs does Cyd Charisse, of Gingerbread, Shrimp, and Cupcake fame, love?

Um, disco. KC & the Sunshine Band, Abba, Thelma Houston, Saturday Night Fever. Mixed with The Clash and The Jam, of course, some Irish punk-type stuff like Flogging Molly, and any rotation of screamo metal and punk, probably. I don’t think she’d like to be pinned down on musical genres.

Basically, if she can dance or hyper-jump to the beat, I think she’d like the song.

I do have a playlist I made for her when I wrote Cupcake. Should I post it on iTunes?

Definitely!

What are Miles’s (from You Know Where To Find Me) favorite songs?

I think Miles is not a music-obsessed teen at all, the way characters like CC or Norah or Wonder (from Pop Princess) are. I think she feels very closed off from popular culture, and avoids music as a consequence. She just wants to lose herself inside books. (But if you want to see some of the songs I listened to while writing You Know Where to Find Me, I posted a playlist for the book as an iMix on the iTunes Music Store — you can find any of my playlists there by going to the iMix section then doing a search on my name.)

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which you wrote with David Levithan, is being made into a movie! If you had some influence over the process and could choose one of your other books to be made into a movie, which would you choose and why?

I couldn’t choose — sorry! The movie-making process is so random and bizarre, I’d be grateful (and stunned) if anything else actually got made and not just optioned. There are a few more options in progress, but we’ll see…still a long way to go for any of my other books to actually make it to the screen. But here’s hoping!

If Gingerbread (and/or its sequels) were to be made into a movie, who would your dream cast include?

I have no idea! Every time I answer this question, my casting choices rapidly become too old for the parts.

Though funnily enough, when I first saw the girl who plays Norah in the Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist movie, my first thought was, She looks like Cyd Charisse!

But when I picture CC, I most see her as looking like the Faith character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Who would your dream cast for You Know Where To Find Me have in it?

I have no idea whatsoever!

I have heard it’s like trying to choose a favorite child, but do you have a favorite of your books?

Well, like your children, I love them all, but for different reasons. I couldn’t choose. Maybe one day readers will run a poll and decide for me?

To readers who are Rachel Cohn fans: If you have a favorite, leave it in the comments!

What is your writing process like? In what environment do you do your best writing?

My writing process changes with each book so I couldn’t proclaim to actually understand my own process. (Unfortunately.) The one thing I do know about it is the environment in which I write best — a quiet and solitary place like a library, free of cell phone, TV and other distractions, my iPod or KALX in my earphones.

Who are some of your writing influences?

I love any books by David Levithan, Patricia McCormick, Jaclyn Moriarty and Markus Zusack. It’s hard to pin down when there are so many writers, especially YA writers, I admire.

What are you writing right now?

That unpublished first novel, redux.

What would your dream job be if you couldn’t write?

Pastry chef or cupcake baker. Bringer of sugar joy to people everywhere.

Now ask yourself a question (and answer it!).

Rachel: What’s for dinner tonight?
Rachel: Well, going to see Paranoid Park at the Angelika this afternoon, which is a few blocks from yummy Spring Street Natural Foods restaurant in Soho, how about there?
Rachel: Good plan. But popcorn at the movie first, right?
Rachel: Duh.

Thank you so much, Rachel!

Chasing Ray is hosting a One Shot World Tour for Canada, and I’ve decided to post about one of my favorite Canadian writers for the occasion!

Carol Matas is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and she is the fantastic author of a lot of books! I first discovered her through her World War II fiction when I was, hmm, must have been about nine? I’m not entirely sure. The first book I read was Greater Than Angels, and after that I read all of her WWII fiction I could find (I’m still looking for a couple of the more obscure titles–The Garden in particular– and the newer ones). I also loved Of Two Minds and More Minds, written with Perry Nodelman, but have not yet read the second two books in that series. I’ve not read any of her other historical or contemporary fiction, either, which, from her website, looks like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

Doing this post makes me want to re-read a lot of her books! Seriously, I loved them, the WWII books in particular. There’s the adventure, the history, the exoticism of a time and place I was unfamiliar with, just everything. And, of course, the tragedy of the Holocaust. I read these when I was a little obsessed with tragedy. I think I found her books first before September 11, 2001, but read most of them right after that time, because after that, my reaction was to read about all sorts of tragedy and watch the news all the time. I’m not really sure why, and it probably wasn’t the most mentally healthy thing to do, but, hey, at least I learned some history and compassion.

If you haven’t read any of Carol Matas’s books, you really should do so. I don’t know if I’d adore them so much if I were to start reading them now, but when I discovered them, I thought they were absolutely amazing, and she’s still one of my favorite authors.

Thank you, Carol Matas for teaching me about history, and for writing wonderful books!

First of all, I’ll be out of town Wednesday thru Saturday without internet access. I’ll still have some posts going up because WordPress lets me forward-date them, and you’ve got some cool things to look forward to–like an interview with Rachel Cohn! So stay tuned.

There are a few links I’d like to share as well. First of all, you can now check my shared items on Google reader page for blog posts I find interesting. Note: not all of these will be book-related. Some will be travel-related or just random. But still interesting

Second of all, Harmony has started the Resolutions Book Challenge, which I will be joining though I haven’t decided on all the details yet. Go check it out!

There’s a couple of blog contests going on right now. Nicole at WORD for Teens is giving away a signed copy of Frenemies, and  The Story Siren is giving away a copy of City of Ashes.

Chelsea at The Page Flipper is starting a book club! Check it out and join if you’re interested.

That’s all for the moment.

Daphne Grab is a member of The Longstockings blog and The Class of 2k8. Alive and Well in Prague, New York is her impressive debut novel about Matisse Osgood, a New York City girl through and through who has to move with her parents to Prague, a small town in upstate New York about four hours away from the city. Matisse loves the city, and that, along with her bitterness about having to leave her world of art galleries and foreign restaurants and everything she loves, makes her seem to be a bit of a snob at first. Matisse has a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude; in her opinion, city people (herself included) are cultured and artistic and mature and intelligent, and the residents of Prague are backward hicks. The name of the town, in Matisse’s opinion, is a cruel joke.

However, Matisse’s attitude can be forgiven, a bit, when readers discover the real reason she and her artist parents left the city. Her father, a rather famous sculptor, has Parkinson’s Disease, or PD. He can’t sculpt anymore; he can hardly function even with the help of all his medications. Matisse can’t deal with that, and she doesn’t want anyone in Prague to find out. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the huge pity party that she left behind in the city. Matisse has a lot to deal with; she may be a pain and a snob at first, but there’s a real reason she’s acting that way. She’s refusing to deal with what’s really bothering her (her father).

Soon, though, despite her attitude, she begins to make some friends. Violet, a loner who writes poetry and sits by herself with a book at lunchtime, for one. Maybe even Hal, her next-door-neighbor who Matisse at first writes off as a complete hick, and Marco, who at first just seems like a shallow stereotype of a jock. Despite alienating her best friend in New York, maybe Matisse isn’t as alone as she thought.

I quite enjoyed Daphne Grab’s debut. Matisse is a realistic character, especially in terms of the way she handles (or rather, doesn’t handle) her father’s illness. Matisse’s character development is right on. Alive and Well in Prague, New York is an engaging, interesting story, and solidly well-written. I loved Daphne Grab’s portrayal of small-town life, and it’s pretty accurate (though I don’t live in such a tiny town, the community where I live is a lot like Prague, New York in some ways. And, yeah, I’ve been on a hayride!). I put this book down feeling quite satisfied, and I look forward to Daphne Grab’s future efforts. This book will be released on June 3.

Mayra Lazara Dole is the author of Down to the Bone, an amazing debut novel set in Cuban Miami, about Laura, a girl who gets kicked out of her house and expelled from school when it’s discovered that she is a tortillera–a girl who likes girls. Down to the Bone is a funny, bold, and poignant novel that I very highly recommend. Without further ado, the author herself!

How much did your own life, background, and experiences influence the writing of Down to the Bone? What do you and Laura have in common?

Laura shares my heart, soul, interests, and humor. I gave Soli my wacked-out personality and loyalty to friends. She’s a hairstylist–as I used to be–who adores life, fun, and laughter. I never hooked up with guys as a teen like Soli, but similar to Laura, I had an Argentinean boyfriend and a true best friend from first to ninth grade. Down to the Bone is entirely fictional, except for one incident influenced by a true story that starts sad and ends fun:

At fourteen, my first love and I were thrown out of a Miami Catholic high school due to a love letter she sent me about our first time making love. The robust, German-American math teacher, Ms. Titisville-Terror–or something of that nature–snatched the letter from my hand and gave it to Mother Superior Slime (can’t recall real name). Ms. Terror, unbeknownst to her, had a bad rep among the girls for being a tortillera/disgusting dyke–she honestly looked like a truck driver who’d whirl obscenities at anyone crossing her path. They read the letter to my mom who’d been dragged from one of her factory jobs to attend the infamous finger-pointing experience (finding out her little girl was a total homo)–Mami was so shocked she punished me harshly: I could never again see or speak to my beloved. The loss of my first love was grave–at the time, she was the love of my life. My best friend’s mom never let her to speak to me again. I was allowed to finish the last two months at school, where I was ostracized and treated like a leper on Ice, but my lover/girlfriend was kicked to the curb. My neighbors–they’d been family to me–forbade me to enter their homes. I felt hopeless, lonely, unwanted and even thought about suicide until, unexpectedly, straight-looking gay guys started befriending me. My heroes!–yes, I’m a bonerfied fag hag! My family had no clue they were homos. My close friend Willy and I acted like a straight couple. We went to gay clubs on weekends and won every dance contest. We became club kids in Miami’s gay scene. Laura found a family and I found a group of FUNtastic LGBTQ friends that saved my life!

Before writing your young adult novel, you wrote picture books. What is the same and different about the two types of writing, and how did your experience in writing picture books affect the writing of Down To The Bone?

I’m passionate about using Cuban colloquialisms, dialect, slang and barrio-street-beat for all my writing. I used an authentic Cuban-American voice for both. I loved bringing a microcosm known to few outsiders, privy only to Cubans who live and breathe el Miami Cubaneo, to readers of all ages. Writing picture books isn’t as simple as it looks. Your condensed story must have a hook at the beginning, strong middle, and explosive end. Writing picture books that were critically acclaimed (Birthday in the Barrio is currently being turned into a short children’s film) helped me get my foot into this cut-throat publishing industry.

Why did you choose to write for young adults?

It chose me! Laura, Soli, Tazer and Viva kept waking me up at 4 am. “Oye, chica, get up! I’m dying to get out of here and have a blast!”

What are you writing now?

Two YA novels, one adult novel, three middle-grade novels, Afro-Cuban poetry, and I’m polishing up/revising my Latina tranny YA/Adult novel set in Miami with an all Latina/o LGBTQ and straight cast–comedy/drama. I’ll also be writing a monthly column in English, with different topics for the LGBTQ magazine.

The setting of Cuban Miami is very present in Down to the Bone; it’s not a book that could be set anywhere without readers seeing the difference. What do you love most about Miami?

I love Miami’s thundershowers, crazy-ass electrical storms, spectacular cloud formations, and that she’s gorgeously green year ’round. In Miami you can kayak, swim, bike, mini-bike, go clubbing every night. There are museums of all kinds and art, music, film, and street festivals such as the infamous Miami Book Festival. If you adore books, you can visit Books and Books where authors do book signings most nights. What Miami doesn’t have are sidewalks! Regardless, most walk around in shorts and Tank tops due to asphyxiating humidity, visit friends for picnics at parks with live bands and bay views, etc. On weekends, you’ll find teens roller blading, skateboarding and playing outdoor sports. When I lived in Boston nine years, I missed Miami every living, breathing moment. Living here is like living in a Latin American country. You reside alongside Cubanos, Colombianos, Venezuelans, Nicaraguan, Argentinos, Chilenos, Costa Ricans, etc.–there’s even a Little Haiti close to Little Havana! There are two million Cubans in Miami and most speak “Cuban,” a vibrant dialect. I LOVE my Cuban heritage, Cuban culture, and speaking Cuban. I can imagine living in Spain, Italy, or Puerto Rico, but Miami and Cuba will always be the homes of my heart.

What is your writing process like?

I go to sleep thinking hard about whatever story I’m writing and awaken before six with ideas and dialogue. I unhook my phone, sit to write, eat breakfast and lunch while writing, and don’t stop till around 4 pm. I write to live, so inspiration and discipline are a must.

Where do you do your best writing?

In front of windows, facing coconut palms, pregnant mango and avocado trees and blooming red bushes.

Could you share the story of your path to publication?

When I was naïve about the publishing world, I submitted dozens of stories in Spanglish I believed publishers would love but ended up with a pillowcase of rejection letters. As a test, I rewrote one of my Spanglish picture books in correct English, peppered with Cuban Colloquialisms, and submitted it to twenty-five publishers interested in multicultural, bilingual work. Children’s Book Press’ Puerto Rican exec editor emailed me immediately, informing me she was crazy about, and interested in, one of my stories! Lo and behold, I worked hard at revising but The Crusty Committee said, “Sorry. It’s too universal.” (I’d managed to “mainstream” and “Americanize” the story for fear of more rejection and it didn’t fly.) Instantly, I knew the exact formula needed: “organic without Spanglish.” Out of pure inspiration, I wrote two bilingual, Miami Cuban picture books that poured out of my heart in one day, about Chavi’s adventures–a tumbadora-playing Cubanita rebel–in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho Festival and in Miami Beach. Feeling insecure, I asked a Cuban librarian acquaintance to help me translate the English to Spanish. After her translation, she made it clear to me, “You have no authority in writing children’s books.” Hurt and dejected, I read her sterile, cold, boring textbook Spanish translation, and tore it to pieces. I became fired-up, worked excruciatingly hard, and sent in my authentic Cuban dialect translation version, using my colorful dialect and colloquialisms. My editor went nuts over it and my “Cuban,” not Spanish, translation got published! In the meantime, I worked diligently on rewriting Down to the Bone--then titled Act Natural!–from Spanglish to English in an authentic Cuban-American voice. After Birthday in the Barrio was released to critical praise, I became empowered and submitted Down to the Bone to a Miami African-American agent. She called to let me know she was mad about my “strong and unique voice” and “compelling story.” After so much rejection, I’d never heard more beautiful words! A week thereafter, I was emailing with my beloved exec editor at Harper Collins who loved everything about my novel and asked for an exclusive. I revised Down to the Bone with her critique and the rest is herstory.

What is your favorite part of Down to the Bone (a passage, a scene, a character, anything)?

I can’t decide which chapter I loved writing most: The Kiss, Act Natural, Tongue Tango, Keepin’ it Down Low, Stinkin’ Liar or Untangling. I was passionate about creating the main characters and every scene they appeared on. I even relished the only two characters that spoke “street” and broken English who rarely made it into most chapters, such as:

Diego: Yah, dawgs. I’m ill. Sick. The most ridiculous pimpin’ gangsta ever.

Viva: Ay, Laurita! Garlics keeps evil espirits and vampiros away.

Tazer, the handsome, scriptwriter B-O-I was amazing to craft. Mami’s engaging and powerful personality hit home. Laura’s love for Marlena and passion for Gisela blew me away. Soli, the “Dominatrix,” kept me laughing. Chispi, Laura’s puppy who wore a “size three bikini” was loads of fun to create.

I’m in love with all my characters and miss them!

What was the most difficult part of Down to the Bone to write (again, a scene, a character, whatever you like)?

I wrote Down to the Bone while dying after being chemically injured by pesticides and living sealed in a “bubble,” but that’s another story. I was ecstatic to be able to move my fingers and use my brain even though the rest of my body barely worked due to a damaged immune system. The entire process was inspiring, exciting, great fun and kept me alive.

Now that you are a published novelist, what is your favorite part of the experience? Something you could do without? The most unexpected part?

I love creating characters that leap off the pages, grab me, and pull me into their lives. Making up dialogue is thrilling! I could do without computer crashes during an intense scene–my editor must be the best in the history of publishing and so is her assistant, making my experience the sweetest an author could dream of, thus I have no complaints. The most unexpected part is that straight teens and LGBTQ adults also love my novel.

Now ask yourself a question (and answer it).

My Question-What do you think of the questions asked by your interviewer?

I LOVED them. I think she’s a brilliant, talented, open-minded, unique teen. She should be in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for reading 150 pages an hour, trying to read a book a day, writing extraordinarily concise and interesting reviews, and coming up with interviews for authors. Thanks Jocelyn!

Thanks so much, Mayra!

I’m starting another reading challenge! The Read For Your Dreams Reading Challenge will last from 1 April 2008 until 1 January 2009, but you can sign up whenever you like, and books can overlap with other challenges.

So what do you have to do? You have to read ten books, fiction or non-fiction, that relate to your dream. Choose one thing you’d really like to do–travel the world, live in Italy, learn to cook, become a lawyer, I don’t care what. And then, read ten books that directly have to do with that dream.

Confused? Don’t worry, it’s really quite simple. For example, if your chosen dream is to travel the world, you would read ten books about travelling. It could be fiction about characters who backpack around Europe or take a cruise in the Carribean or non-fiction about ways to travel cheaply or a non-fiction account of a person’s experience travelling. If your dream is to be an Olympic gold medalist, you would read ten books about the Olympics and/or your chosen sport. And so on. Any questions, just ask, but I think it’s fairly straightforward.

To sign up, leave a link in the comments of the main challenge page (not here, click the link).

Violet by Design is Melissa Walker‘s second book about small-town-girl-turned-supermodel Violet Greenfield, and it’s just as great as Violet on the Runway. In this book, Violet has decided to return to the modeling business and she’s off to work the Sao Paolo runways. That’s right–Brazil! Violet is on her way to becoming an international star.

Of course, there was a reason she left it behind before. Modeling certainly has its ups and downs. Sure, she gets to travel to exotic places–but she also gets called “la gordita” (little fat girl) for not being afraid to gain five pounds and be normal-girl-skinny instead of anorexic-looking.  She’s in the tabloids, and anything she says can and will be used against her. Is the life of an international supermodel really worth leaving all of her friends and family at home behind to deal with so much pressure and superficiality?

On top of all of that, she’s got the typical teenage girl worries about her future, her romantic prospects, her friends, staying true to herself, and, like any recent high school graduate, balancing new with old. What’s a girl to do?

Yes, this is a book about modeling. But, as with Melissa Walker’s debut novel, it’s about so much more than that! It’s about life and friends and family and romance and knowing who you are and blindly feeling your way through an uncertain future the way we all do at some point.

As you can probably guess, I was pretty disgusted with the way already-super-skinny  Violet was always being pressured to lose five pounds, but that doesn’t detract from this book because Melissa Walker knows what she’s talking about when she writes about the fashion industry, and I do believe this is true-to-life. It’s not the book that horrifies me; it’s the truth of it, of the fashion industry, of that horrible negative body image that so many girls get from it. It’s relatively minor here–five pounds. But many girls are dozens or hundreds of pounds above the “ideal” weight in the fashion industry, and there’s nothing wrong with those girls. There is, however, something wrong with the fashion industry.

PSA over for the moment. Violet by Design  is an honest, funny, thoughtful, and intelligent book about one girl’s struggle to figure out who she is and stay true to herself despite the temptations to be someone else (like international superstardom and money and free stuff and exotic travel in this case, but there can be so many things that threaten us in that way).  I love Melissa Walker’s characters, and she is quite a talented writer. I can’t wait for the third book in the series, Violet in Private.

I have to start by saying, Naomi Shihab Nye is one of the most amazing writers whose work I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have read her poetry and her young adult novel, Habibi, which has been a favorite of mine for years. I am not the biggest fan of poetry, in general (I do like it, but not as much as I do novels or short stories most of the time), but Naomi Shihab Nye is a huge exception to that. I’d rather read her poetry (or her prose) than almost anything else. Her way with words is just astounding and beautiful. Her words, in Honeybee and in all of her other writing that I’ve ever read, bring out so many thoughts and questions and emotions and images and are just so brilliant that my words cannot possibly be enough to describe hers in any way doing justice to them.

Honeybee is a collection of poems and short prose (though the prose is more poetic than most), some right from the author’s experiences and life, others more about politics (though that’s not an adequate description for many–more about the daily lives of those people of whom all we see is the politics of their situation, but she shows their humanity), and others a mixture of the two, being about her experiences as an Arab-American in post-9/11 America. Everything in this book is so honest and true and  thoughtful and observant and so, so many things. Often, sad, when we read about the state of the Middle East today or the way we treat our fellow humans. There is despair here, but there is also hope.

Naomi Shihab Nye sees so clearly and writes so wonderfully about the sad state of the world today, as in this poem “Consolation”:

“This morning the newspaper
was too terrible to deliver
so the newsboy just pitched out
a little sheaf
of Kleenex.”*

Naomi Shihab Nye takes the title of my favorite poet, hands down, even more so after reading this collection. It will be available in May, at which point I strongly suggest you go and buy and read it. Until then, go read something else of hers, if you haven’t already!

The sad thing? One of the greatest poets and writers around is probably on a ton of government watch lists because she has the courage to speak the truth (and does so quite eloquently).  And, of course, because of her ethnicity. What a world we live in.
*This is from the Uncorrected Proof copy and subject to change in the final book.

Liz Gallagher is the brilliant new author of The Opposite of Invisible. Liz is also a member of the Class of 2k8, and the second one to be interviewed here (I have also interviewed 2k8 member Lisa Schroeder)! Liz’s debut novel is really amazing, and we are quite lucky to have her here today for an interview!

Where did the inspiration to write The Opposite of Invisible come from?

I used to walk from a bus stop in Fremont, the Seattle neighborhood where the novel is set and where I now live, to my job at a before-school program. One fall day, while passing the big junk shop (it’s called Deluxe Junk), I realized that Fremont would be a great place to set a book. I knew right away that I wanted to set the book around Halloween, because it’s my favorite time of year. From there, I came up with the original first line: “It all started with this dress.” That line just haunted me and was a great springboard, but I don’t think it ended up anywhere in the actual book!

How has the novel changed since the first draft?

It’s changed so much! I originally wrote it as a short story. One of the biggest changes is that Simon used to be a one-dimensional jock character, and he was way too mean to Alice. Now, I think he’s more like a real guy who just happens to be popular, which is how I always wanted him to be. Other main elements didn’t change that much — the tight friendship between Alice and Jewel has always been there.

Why did you choose to write for young adults? Would you like to write for other audiences?

I just think young adult literature is where it’s at. My favorite writer is MT Anderson. I was already working in a kids’ bookshop (All for Kids here in Seattle) and loving young adult books, but it was while reading his book FEED that I really fell inextricably in love with the genre. I might like to try some adult romantic fiction, or a fun series that’s a little younger than OPPOSITE, but for now I’m stickin’ to YA.

In the book, Alice talks to her poster of Picasso’s Dove Girl. How did you choose the piece of artwork that would be Alice’s confidante? What are some of your other favorite paintings?

Good question! I have that actual poster, from the Picasso museum in Barcelona. I just love the image. It was a natural choice. I didn’t want her to have a journal, but I knew she needed an outlet for her feelings, and that idea just appeared on the page. I love lots of Picasso (I even have a Picasso tattoo!), and I am intrigued by Duchamp (like Vanessa); I also love Matisse and van Gogh. STARRY NIGHT is one of my favorite paintings.

What was your road to becoming a published author like? How is the experience of actually being a published author different from what you expected?

My road seems pretty smooth, looking back! When I knew I wanted to get serious about writing, I applied to the Vermont College MFA program in writing for children and young adults. It was in the program that I wrote most of OPPOSITE. Right before graduation, I signed on with my agent, Rosemary Stimola. She sold the book soon after graduation, and here I am, two and a half years later. The experience is fun every step of the way. I think it’s different than what I expected in that I still feel shocked that my book is out there in the world. I just can’t get used to it!

The setting of The Opposite of Invisible, Seattle, is very much a presence in the novel. What’s your favorite place in Seattle?

Oooh, that’s hard. I have a few, and they’re all in the book — Pike Place Market (I’m so excited that it’s becoming good-fruit season!), the view from the top of Queen Anne Hill. But I’ll have to say my favorite is the Troll. I’m lucky enough to live on the same block as the Troll, too. (Psst: the road was closed a few days ago because, apparently, Jennifer Aniston is filming a movie here. So look for the Troll in an upcoming flick!)

Is Alice like you in any way?

She’s like me in the way she thinks — her thought process, the way she makes decisions. But she’s more well-adjusted to life than I think I was at age fifteen. And she speaks her mind, which is still hard for me to do sometimes.

What are you writing now?

I’m working on a companion to OPPOSITE, actually. It’s all about Vanessa.

What are some of your favorite books or authors?

Like I said, FEED by MT Anderson changed my life! I also love books by Lara Zeises, Alison McGhee, and Ron Koertge.

Now, ask yourself a question (and give the answer)!

Do you know any other writers, Liz?

Why, yes, I do! Some from my days at Vermont College, and 27 debut writers from The Class of 2k8 (classof2k8.com), of which I am proud to be a member.

Thanks so much, Liz!

Before I read this book, I already knew that Deb Caletti was amazing, but The Fortunes of Indigo Skye showed me just how brilliant and talented this author really is!

Indigo Skye is a waitress, and she loves her job. She loves forming personal relationships with the people who come regularly to Carrera’s (a group known as the Irregulars). She loves when she manages every table and order perfectly, like it was a dance someone choreographed. She loves her boyfriend, Trevor, and her family (her mom, her little sister, Bex, and her twin brother, Severin).  She’s about to graduate from high school, and she lives in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. Her life is great, and she’s happy just the way it is.

And then, it changes. A new guy comes into Carrera’s, a guy who seems to have a lot of money. He rides a Vespa, and becomes known as Vespa Guy. He orders “just coffee,” and becomes something of a mystery to the Irregulars, who like to speculate on who he is. One day, Indigo sees a package of cigarettes in his jacket pocket, which really sets her off. She yells at him about killing himself, then talks to him about his life. Not that remarkable, really–except then, he leaves an envelope for her at the diner. It’s a mystery that she’s sure will be disappointing when she finally opens the envelope.

Disappointing? Think again: he’s left her a two-and-a-half million dollar tip.

That seems great at first, but money changes people. Indigo has been warned of it, but she doesn’t believe she will be changed by her sudden fortune. She was fortunate enough already. Once she gets over the shock, having that money is pretty great–or is it?

This book is seriously amazing. Deb Caletti is such a fantastic writer, and her characters! They’re just so real and awesome. All I can do with regard to this book is gush! The characters, and the relationships between them, are just so marvelous and honest and real and fascinating. The story, too, is very interesting, but there’s a lot more to this book than a rags-to-riches or money-doesn’t-buy-happiness story. There are real, big, fundamental truths here about life and humanity and love and family and so much more. All I can say is, read this book!

Kate Schafer of kt literary is a literary agent whose clients include Maureen Johnson, Alyson Noel and more. She is also known as Daphne Unfeasible, and she has a great blog. Today, she’s here answering some questions about her job, why writers need agents, her favorite books, and more!

Could you describe a typical day as an agent?

I work from a home office, so my typical day varies from other agents’ who go into an office. That being said, mine starts with checking my email pretty much as soon as I wake up. After seeing if there’s any glaring emergencies, I grab some breakfast, return to the computer, and catch up on my news feeds, which include publishing news, writer blogs, and other sites that may spark an idea. After that, I put together a post for my Ask Daphne! blog, and continue dealing with emails. After that, I may have to prepare a submission or review a contract — both take up a lot of time, so it’s not something I do every day. If it’s a very good day, I get an offer for one of my clients, and get to negotiate with the publisher, consider beginning an auction, or present the offer to the author. I try to keep up to date on my queries as well — although I’d prefer to read 30 at a time then let one every few minutes take me away from other work. After lunch and The Daily Show from night before, if I’m not fielding calls from Hollywood or catching up with editors, I try to dive into the partials I’ve requested, looking for the next great new client. Reading can continue well into the evening, as does checking email. It’s probably not healthy, but email is the last thing I check before bed, too. When you’re talking to people all over the world, an email can come in at any time of the day, and if I can easily respond quickly, I like to do so.

What do you love about your job?

Everything? Can I say “everything”? I love finding new authors, and putting them in touch with editors who love their manuscripts as much as I do. I love being my own boss, and responsible for my own success. I love my clients — reading their blogs, talking them down around deadlines, giving them great news, getting advice about music.

What could you live without?

Failure. Rejections are tough even if I didn’t write the book. I’m still championing it, and I hate the rejection as much as authors do. Also, seeing a book you love and have worked with the author and the editor on for years not do as well as you all hoped is tough too. Everyone wants your book to do well, and when it doesn’t, you have to plan for the next success — because it WILL come. I have to believe in that, or I couldn’t do my job.

How did you get started in this career?

I always knew I wanted to work in publishing, and my first job in the industry was a perfect introduction — working in the rights department of Houghton Mifflin, assisting the people responsible for both adult and children’s, foreign and domestic rights. Besides teaching me about rights (and putting me in close proximity with Curious George), I was working with or contacting people in every other department of the company — editorial, publicity, production, sales, etc. It was a great way to learn about the business as a whole, rather than from one small specific viewpoint. After a while at HMCo., and a brief foray into the rights department of another company, I found my way to the powerhouse literary agency Janklow & Nesbit, which ended up being a ten-year masterclass in agenting.

Do you have any advice for aspiring agents?

Read EVERYTHING you come across. Keep up with the industry trades — subscribe to Publishers Lunch to follow what’s being sold and who’s doing what, and Daily Publishers Weekly for more industry news. Take any job that gets you into the industry, and that you can find a way to make interesting for yourself. Find a niche, and become an expert in something — or at least an educated reference on some specific topic. Keep reading. Make friends and contacts. Have fun.

What makes a book really stand out to you?

I think it’s voice. Lots of times, I’ll be really intrigued by a plot, but be disappointed when it comes to reading the chapters, because the narrative voice didn’t live up to the originality of the plot. Of course, voice alone doesn’t work – it still needs a plot. I think Andrew Karre of Flux said something similar, and I bet a lot of other editors and agents would agree. Sometimes it’s a concept, but I need the voice to work for me as well.

Why do writers need agents?

So they can write, and not worry about contracts, and submissions, and negotiations, and subsidiary rights approvals, and marketing plans, etc. A good agent enables a writer to concentrate on their next novel, while the agent handles the business side of their relationship with their publisher. In this day and age, most editors won’t even look at an unagented author’s material, so we’re needed to get that first read as well. Editors trust that material coming to them from an agent has already been vetted, and if an agent has built up a good relationship with an editor, and has a history of sending strong manuscripts, there’s an extra layer of trust as well that an unsolicited submission isn’t going to have.

What advice do you have for writers looking for an agent?

Do your research, mostly. Use whatever resources are available to you to learn what you can about any agent you’re considering submitting to — the internet, books, other authors. But don’t every trust any one source. I’ve put up a selection of Writers Resources on my site, which my readers have added to. And once you’re ready to submit to an agent, if they’ve provided any guidelines for submitting, FOLLOW THEM! Provide the information they ask for, use spell check, and send the best query letter you can. After that — practice patience, and work on your next novel.

What are some of your favorite books (not by your clients)?

Oh man, there are SO MANY. I love pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman, tear through books by Nora Roberts, usually with tears in my eyes by the time I’m done, love Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES series, have an almost complete collection of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, can’t keep up with Meg Cabot but try my best, adore Kate Seredy’s classics, and have almost a dozen copies of different editions of THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

What books coming out in the near future by your clients are you excited about?

I’m really excited by Maureen Johnson‘s upcoming SUITE SCARLETT, which Scholastic is publishing in May. Maureen’s gotten some fantastic praise from her fellow YA writers, and we think this book is going to be a real blockbuster. Alyson Noel is at work on a paranormal romance that’s very exciting — called EVERMORE, it should be published by St. Martin’s in Winter 2009. She’s also got CRUEL SUMMER coming out this summer (how appropriate!) that is told entirely in emails, text messages, diary entries, and blog posts. And I have a debut novelist, Josie Bloss, whose first teen novel BAND GEEK LOVE will be published by Flux in July.

Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you wish I’d asked?

Nope! I think you just about covered it all! Oh wait, there is one thing. If any of your readers have specific questions about publishing, searching for an agent, or anything about the industry, I’m happy to answer their emails on my blog, Ask Daphne! Send emails to daphne.unfeasible@gmail.com.

Thanks so much!

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