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!

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!

Stephanie Kuehnert is the rather brilliant author of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, a book I absolutely adored! From the comments on my review, it looks like quite a few of you are excited for this book as well, which comes out in July, and, trust me, you should be excited! It really is just such an amazing and wonderful novel. Seriously, just pre-order it now; you will be far from disappointed when you read it.

I’m really thrilled to have Stephanie here today for an interview! A really great interview, too; I loved reading her answers. So, without further ado, here it is.

Is any of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is based on your own experiences?

I didn’t really draw from my own experiences for the book, but I did draw from my love of music. In fact, the first paragraph of the book is lifted straight from a journal entry I wrote about flipping through my parents’ record collection. I just changed the reference to cold Chicago winters to cold Wisconsin winters.

What was your inspiration for writing this book? What came to you first–plot or characters or something else?

The characters came to me first. I discovered Louisa’s story and then Emily’s and then I realized that if I connected the two I’d have a very powerful basis for a novel. The main inspirations for the book were my love of punk rock and also of the Midwest. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for a little while and my roommate and I used to go for drives in the countryside late at night. We’d pick a random County Highway and follow it. We’d drive down Main Streets in towns like my fictional Carlisle and imagine what the town and the people were like. IWBYJR is kind of an extended version of those imaginings.

What do you have in common with Emily and/or Louisa?

I certainly share the passion for music, particularly punk rock, with both of them. I also share Emily’s desire to prove herself at her chosen art. I escaped into my writing during my teenage years like she escapes into her music. I’d love to be the literary equivalent of a rock star. Like Louisa, I’ve had my fair share of demons and spent period of my life running from them, though I was never as haunted as she is and I never ran as far or for as long as she does.

Obviously, a big part of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is music. Are you a musician? Have you ever tried to be, if not?

Oh, I’ve tried. And failed. I took guitar lessons on three different occasions. I talked about having a band called The Morning After all throughout high school with a few of my friends. One friend actually wrote a song for the band and taught me the song, but that was as far as it went. I have a Fender Jagstang, which shows what a huge Nirvana nerd I am because it’s the guitar Kurt Cobain designed and I bought it solely because of that. I go through phases where I try to play it. I teach myself some punk songs, try to write my own songs, but I get frustrated because I can’t sing and play at the same time. It’s probably because I don’t practice enough, but I don’t practice enough because I want to spend my free time writing. Since high school, I’ve been choosing writing over music. Maybe one day when I can write full time, music can become a more serious hobby.

If you could be suddenly amazingly talented at one musical instrument or singing, what would you choose and why?

I’m gonna cheat and say I’d be a singer/guitarist like Emily. After all, I created Emily because she’s the girl I always wanted to be. (Well, minus the missing mom. I like my relationship with my mom as it is.) But the combination of words and guitar is just so powerful, I would love to wield that power.
What are some songs that have a special significance to you?

Music is so significant to me that I don’t just have songs, I have entire albums. Nirvana’s Bleach album reminds me of the period in junior high when I embraced my creative, weird girl self and stopped caring about fitting in with the popular crowd. …And Out Come the Wolves by Rancid reminds me of my best friend and our adventures junior year of high school. Live Through This by Hole will always be the album I turn to for strength. Though there are some individual songs that are extremely meaningful to me for reasons that are hard to explain-they are just my songs-like “Young Crazed Peeling” by the Distillers, “On A Plain” by Nirvana, and “Another Shot of Whiskey” by the Gits. Of course now “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” by Sleater-Kinney will forever remind me of my first book!

What are some songs that you’re into right now?

I’m utterly obsessed with this album Saturnalia by the Gutter Twins right now. They are just soooo amazing, I blogged about them twice last week. I’m also really into the song “Thrash Unreal” by Against Me!, the girl they sing about in that song is totally one of the sad girl characters I would write about. I’d love to write a short story to accompany that song.

What would be some of Emily’s favorite songs?

I’ve always thought of “Don’t Take Me For Granted” by Social Distortion as Emily’s theme song. She would absolutely adore “The Hunger” by the Distillers and wish she’d written it. It combines an almost bluesy sound with raw, angry punk and brutally honest lyrics; that’s exactly Emily’s type of song. But she’d also get a kick out of “40 Boys in 40 Nights” by the Donnas-that’s totally her sense of humor-and she’d love the Sleater-Kinney song her book is named for, too.

Who are your writing influences?

I have so many… I love John Steinbeck. I can’t tell you how much I learned about using place to shape character from GRAPES OF WRATH. I definitely used that in IWBYJR. Irvine Welsh has been a huge influence. He showed the world that you don’t have to be all hoity-toity to write literature. You can write about raw, real situations and write the way real people speak. His books just gave me so much permission. John McNally’s work taught me how to weave humor into dramatic situation. Joe Meno…I was lucky enough to take a few classes from him at Columbia and could probably write an entire essay on how much he taught me, but most important, he taught me discipline. He’s so focused, he teaches full-time, plus writes a couple books and a couple plays a year. It’s amazing. And then of course, I also took a lot from his book HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED and the very honest, touching, but humorous way he handles a coming of age story. My other writing influences include the songwriters that I consider to be great lyricists like Johnny Cash, Courtney Love, and Robert Smith.

What are some of your favorite YA books or authors?

My favorite (and someone who was certainly an influence, but I saved her for this question) is Francesca Lia Block. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the WEETZIE BAT books. WICKED LOVELY by Melissa Marr touched me in that same Francesca Lia Block place. And as I mentioned, I love really real, raw stories, so some other faves are ALMOST HOME by Jessica Blank and then both SUCH A PRETTY GIRL and LEFTOVERS by Laura Wiess.

How has IWBYJR changed since the first draft?

It’s been through eight drafts, so it has evolved quite a bit. It was originally conceived of as a “novel in stories” so the chapters were a lot less linear and they could stand on their own like short stories. Since that point, a lot has been added and a lot has been cut. It was originally written for adults, so there were other points of view I explored including Emily’s dad Michael’s and Louisa’s best friend Molly’s that fleshed out the wider world of the story, gave you more of their history with Louisa and more of a sense of Carlisle. When MTV Books picked it up as YA, my editor asked that I streamline it and only use Emily and Louisa’s points of view. As a result, I wrote two more chapters that heightened Emily’s band’s career and I cut those Michael and Molly sections. But they had some great scenes and I plan to put them in an outtakes section on my website after the book comes out.

What is your writing process like?

I’m best as a binge writer, writing in four to fourteen hour blocks. When I was a student with two part-time jobs, I was able to arrange my schedule to suit this. Now I work a 9 to 5 and I’m still adjusting. When I’m discovering a story, I write the scenes that are taking my attention first until I figure out the whole story, then I outline and put it together linearly. I think I like revising best though. I do a ton of revising!

What are you writing right now?

My agent is shopping my second book. MTV Books gets the first look and I hope they’ll like it because I love working with them. You can see what it is about here. Right now a few ideas are taking my attention, so I’m just playing around till I figure out which is the strongest. But I think Book 3 is going to be a YA about a boy helping to avenge terrible things that have happened to his twin sister and her best friend. It will play with the Persephone myth in a modern, realistic way.

How long have you wanted to be a writer? What was your path to publication like?

I wanted to be a writer since I started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books at the beginning of grade school. I mentally composed my autobiography and started keeping a diary then. I got more serious about it in high school when I started doing ‘zines along with writing short stories and poetry. But it wasn’t until my early twenties when I went to get my bachelor’s and master’s in fiction writing that I really made writing my main focus in life. I met my agent through an event at my college. It was one of those dream scenarios where she saw one chapter of IWBYJR and knew she had to have it. I worked my butt off to finish it over the next six months, did some revisions for her, and then she started shopping it. It took a year for the book to sell. She tried adult publishers first and we got a lot of polite rejections. Then, she decided to try the YA houses and MTV Books picked it up right away!

Emily criss-crosses the country searching for answers about her mother. Other people (real and fictional) have driven thousands of miles in search of many other things, some physical and some not. It’s a recurring theme in lots of fiction. If you had time to go on a road trip, what would you look for and where would you start?

The road trip I’m dying to take is Route 66 all the way to California. It starts here in Chicago so that works out nicely. And I guess I’d be searching for what I’m searching for every day: a great story. Maybe it’s my whole GRAPES OF WRATH obsession, but I think I could find inspiration for a great, real American story on that road, either in the historic things I’d find along the way or maybe among the locals in a bar in New Mexico or something. Either way, I’m convinced I could collect a lot of stories along Route 66.

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

I don’t know how I can top that last one, which was such a great question. So I think I’ll take this as an opportunity publicly clear something up that I know is going to vex me…

How is your last name pronounced?

Well, it’s not Coon-heart or Kway-nert or Coo-nert like I often get. “Kuehn” is prounouced Keen in German, so I’m Stephanie Key-nert.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to say thank you for having me and for your commitment to getting the word out about books. I have huge respect and admiration for book review bloggers like you. Also I should probably let everyone know that I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE is available for pre-order on Amazon and invite everyone to visit me on my blog and my website and myspace because I love meeting people who are interested in books, road trips, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Thank you so much, Stephanie!

I’m very pleased to announce an interview with Pat Murphy! Pat is the author of 2007 Middle Grade Cybils finalist The Wild Girls and other wonderful books for adults such as The City, Not Long After. She’s a very talented writer, and we’re very lucky to have her here today!

What was your inspiration for writing The Wild Girls? The Wild Girls is your first novel for young people; you had previously published several books for adults. Why did you decide to write for a new audience? Are you anything like Joan or Sarah, or were you at their age?

I wanted to write a book that would have made a difference to me, when I was the age of the girls in the book. As I’m sure you can tell, elements of this book are autobiographical. Like Joan and Fox, I felt that I did not belong in the well-manicured world of the suburbs. Like Joan and Fox, I struggled with family issues. The orchard where Fox and her dad live was near the house where I grew up.

Though I didn’t meet anyone like Verla Volante (the girl’s writing instructor) or Gus (Fox’s father) when I was a girl, I now know that the world is filled with such people. This book came from the joy of imagining what meeting Verla and Gus would have been like when I was Joan’s age.

I was a lot like Joan, growing up. A good student, but an outsider. But as is always the case, all my characters reflect pieces of my own personality. Writing lets me explore all those aspects of my personality – from the wildness of Fox and Verla Volante to the anger
and control of Joan’s father.

For me, every novel is an excuse to learn amazing new things. To write Wild Girls, I learned how to walk on stilts at The Crucible, a school of industrial arts in Oakland, California. Walking on stilts really is an act of belief. It isn’t hard-as long as you believe you can do it. I think there are many things in the world that share this characteristic.

What are you writing now?

I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from fiction writing. After working at San Francisco’s Exploratorium (a museum of science, art, and human perception) for more than 20 years, I changed jobs. After learning to walk on stilts at The Crucible, I went on to become the organization’s marketing director-and along the way I learned to weld and to work with molten glass. Then I started working as a writer and editor at Klutz, a fabulous children’s book publisher. Each book Klutz publishes comes with the stuff you need to do all the activities in the book. The very first Klutz book was Juggling for the Complete Klutz. I learned to juggle from that book in the 70s, and it seems too perfect to be writing books for Klutz now! My first book for Klutz was a re-working of the Klutz book of board games. Fifteen great board games squeezed into a book, with everything you need to play them. I’m just finishing Card Trickery, a book that will teach people to throw, fan, flourish, spot cheaters, and do magic with cards. It’s great fun.

But I’m just getting started on a new novel. Too soon to talk about it, I’m afraid.

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

I have three favorites.
The Wild Girls
The City, Not Long After
Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Enjoy the process – of learning, of writing, of exploring yourself and the world with words. People often seem to talk about how difficult it is to write – the agony of writers’ block, the long nights of introspection, all that stuff. But if I didn’t like writing, I wouldn’t do it. Writing lets me figure out who I am, how I think the world works. Writing helps me sort out the answers to questions that intrigue, disturb, and puzzle me. The questions and the answers are not simple (which is why it takes a novel to explore them), and I don’t know any way to explore them other than writing.

What are some of your favorite books or authors?

I have many favorite books. (As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”) Since The Wild Girls is a children’s book, I’ll give you the names of some of the authors that influenced me when I was growing up.

Edward Eager
E. Nesbit
Lewis Carroll (I read The Annotated Alice dozens of times)

And I remember certain books:
City Under the Back Steps by Evelyn Sibley Lampman
The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

There are so many more. I read fairy tales avidly and books about animals. I also read science fiction, JRR Tolkien, and every Tarzan novel I could put my hands on.

How long have you know you wanted to be a writer? Could you tell me a little about your road to publication?

I was a reader but not a writer until I was in college. Up to that point, I had always thought of writing as a calling, not something a person could choose, but something that chose you. Lois Natanson, one of my professors in college, told me I was a good writer, and I realized that it might be possible to be a writer. So I started writing stories and sending them to science fiction markets. I figured I’d send out my work until I had 100 rejection slips –and then I’d stop. But I sold a story on my 6th rejection slip, and there was no turning back. It was a long time before I sold another story, but I was committed.

My bachelor’s degree is not in writing, but in biology. I have always maintained two parallel careers: as a science writer and as a fiction writer. Balancing the two means I write less fiction, but allows me to be very free in what I write. And that’s a blessing.

What is your writing process like–where do you write, do you outline, how many drafts, etc.?

It varies enormously. On novels, I outline before I start. Then, halfway through, I throw out that outline and write a new one. Sometimes I have to toss the second outline as well. but I always have an outline.

I can write anywhere. Right now, I’m writing on the train to work. (I live in San Francisco and work in Palo Alto.) I’ve always liked writing on trains.

There are always a few drafts. Lots of writing on the cutting room floor. That’s just part of the process.

What has your long experience in being a published author been like–the best part, the worst part, and the most surprising part?

The best parts: the writing; hearing from readers and discovering that my stories make a difference to people

The worst part: having books go out of print, an increasing problem in these days of diminishing back lists (Don’t get me started on the business of writing! If you want to know about that, read the Author’s Guild’s study of mid-list books.)

The most surprising part: realizing that every novel has a process – and that process includes a part in the middle where I say to myself, “Who ever said you could write a novel. And this novel – what a stupid idea it is!” Usually around then, I have to rewrite the outline. And then I have to push through the self-doubt (what I call the Slough of Despond) and emerge from the other side.

I didn’t realize that this was a pattern until I mentioned to my husband, “I’ve never felt this bad about a book.” “Oh, sure you did,” he said. “You do every time. Isn’t it about time to rewrite the outline?”

A year or so back, I took an oil painting class and the instructor talked about “the painting curve,” which includes a point at which your painting looks like mud and you just have to keep on going. Interesting parallel to the writing process.

Is there any question you wish I’d asked you, or anything else you’d like to say?

I just found out that The Wild Girls has won the Christopher Award (www.christophers.org), which is given each year to books “which affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” I’m honored and thrilled. I’d also like to mention my connection to the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award (www.tiptree.org). In 1991, Karen Joy Fowler and I founded this award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.

Why reward writers who explore gender roles? In Writing A Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun wrote: “…it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experience electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all….”

To change our society, we must imagine new stories – and that’s what the Tiptree Award promotes. The award is named for Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. By her impulsive choice of a masculine pen name, Sheldon helped break down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing.” The award is funded by a grassroots effort of auctions and bake sales. After all, if you can’t change the world with chocolate chip cookies, how can you change the world?

Other than that, I’d just like to say: “Thanks for the interview!”

Thank you, Pat!

Mary E. Pearson is the author of several fantastic books, including her latest, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, a truly amazing novel whose subject I can’t clearly tell you because it gives away too much! Anyway, without further ado, the interview! Thanks, Mary, for doing this.

What inspired you to write The Adoration of Jenna Fox?

The first seeds of the story were planted when my teenage daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Of course at first I was terrified, but very soon I realized how lucky we were that we lived where we did and when we did because there was a good treatment. Just fifty years earlier she would have died of this disease and now, thanks to good doctors and good treatments she would survive. It made me wonder just how far medicine would advance in another fifty years. And then as she went treated and I saw far sicker children in the hospital and the agony their parents were going through, I wondered again, how far would a parent go to save their child? How much would they be willing to put them through? As a parent, how far would I go?
Of course, these were only ‘wonderings’ of mine at the time during all the long hours and months waiting in hospital rooms while my own child went through treatment. I didn’t know these would be questions that would one day be the impetus for a story. Six years later when I was about three quarters done with this book, another seed was planted. My second daughter became seriously ill. This second diagnosis was almost my undoing, but I believe that it deepened the story, my understanding of the characters, and also deepened my resolve that you never know what you might do in an impossible situation.

If The Adoration of Jenna Fox were to be made into a movie, and you were the casting director, who would you pick to play your main characters?

It is going to be made into a movie! We’ve had interest for months and it recently sold to 20th Century Fox. An awesome producer, Julia Pistor, and director, Brad Silberling, are making it. I met with them and they had so many wonderful ideas about how to turn the book into a movie, that I knew immediately that they would make an awesome one. I can’t wait to see who they cast. I told them who a few of my “dream” choices would be, but I know they will choose the best possible actors because this is what they do.

Why do you write for young adults? What do you really enjoy or find challenging about writing for this particular audience?

For me, this age is such a fascinating, exciting, and pivotal time. I really don’t think of the teen years as a stage, as many people do, but the beginning of this long stage we call adulthood that is always in a state of change. You don’t finish the teen years and suddenly become this static adult. You continue to evolve. I am not the same person I was ten years ago, or even five years ago. But what I like about the teen years is that as we establish out identities apart from our parents, deciding what we believe, from politics, to religion, to relationships and how they should be approached, we are feeling our way, making good and bad decisions for the very first time. I think this heightens the drama, but more importantly for me, as a writer I can have patience with such characters, as opposed to adults who are repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Have you ever, do you plan to, or would you like to write for a different audience in the future?

Sure! If the right character or situation spoke to me, I probably would have no choice.

What are you writing now?

I am working on another YA, this one about chance and coincidence and a girl who has had more than her fair share of it in her life. I am very near the end. It should be out in Spring of 09.

I know it’s probably like being asked to choose a favorite child, but do you have a favorite of your books?
Always the newest one out because it is so fresh in my mind.

Can you share a little about your road to publication?

I began writing while on breaks from my teaching job and eventually started writing full time around ten years ago. I joined the SCBWI, bought the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Digest and began submitting my first finished manuscript. That one never sold-it was a long rambling historical–but I did get some good feedback from editors saying they liked it but they wished it moved along a little faster. That was an understatement. I had no clue about pacing at that time, so when I started my second manuscript I was committed to make every word count. That was a great learning experience for me, and that manuscript, David v. God, did indeed sell. Once I understood pacing I tried to slow down and flesh my stories out a little more. Every book is a new challenge. I try to learn something from each one I write, so that I am always growing as a writer.

What is one of your favorite lines or passages from The Adoration of Jenna Fox?

Since it is near the end of the story and might be a spoiler I won’t quote it, but toward the bottom of page 260 there is a paragraph about winter in Boston that tugs at my heart every time I read it. It includes an age old saying that I know will be relevant a hundred years from now because some thing never do change. I cried when I wrote that passage and I don’t often cry as I write.

What three things are always on your desk?

1. Paper. Piles of paper. And lots of scraps where I have jotted down a thought on whatever piece of writeable material is available, like napkins, dry cleaning tickets, or store receipts while I am out and about. By the time I am finished with a book I have a drawer full of them.
2. Chapstick.
3. Coffee rings.

Thanks for doing this!

I was incredibly lucky enough to interview the wonderfully talented David Levithan! David is an amazing writer whose books include How They Met, a short story collection, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a collaboration with the equally fantastic Rachel Cohn, Wide Awake, a fascinating political novel, and various other wonderful things! He is also an editor at Scholastic, and his PUSH imprint has published such fantastic books as Siobhan Vivian’s A Little Friendly Advice. Thanks to David for giving such great answers, and thanks to you all for reading. Without further ado, the interview!

You’ve written two wonderful books with Rachel Cohn, and I see from your website that you’re working on another collaboration with two other authors. How is that experience different from writing your solo books?

Every collaboration is different — and usually each one has its own rules. But there’s nothing better. I love it because of the energy that bounces between me and the other author or authors. Also, I love not haviing to figure out the story by myself — it’s a very different thing to sit down and write when you’re only responsible for one chapter at a time, rather than a whole novel. I’m still going to write solo, too, but I’m going to try to do many collaborations in the next few years.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which you co-wrote with Rachel Cohn, is being turned into a movie! How is that going? How much are you kept up-to-date on what’s going on? Have you had any input into it?

It’s fantastic. Rachel and I are like godparents to the whole endeavor. We genuinely love everyone involved — so we were happy to put it all in their hands and watch what happened.

Are you and Rachel planning to write any more books together?

All I’ll say is “you never know.”

One of my consistent thoughts while reading HOW THEY MET was, “This should be a novel!” So many of the stories–Starbucks Boy and Princes, to name a couple–really just made me want more. Do you think you’ll ever expand any of them?

Right now, they all exist as stories in my mind. But there are definitely a couple — Starbucks Boy and Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat, in particular — that I might revist someday.

Besides being a writer, you are also an editor at Scholastic. You’ve edited lots of anthologies as well as novels. So, you see two sides of publishing–that of a writer, of course, and that of an editor. How has each one affected how you do the other job?

It’s hard to say. I’m just more plugged in to both sides of the equation, so to speak. I certainly understand what my writers are going through when I’m editing them — and I also understand what my editor is going through when she edits me. I hope that makes me a better writer and editor… but you’d have to ask them.

Could you share a little about your road to publication?

Really, I just wrote stories for my friends, and one of them, Boy Meets Boy, happened to turn into a novel, and that novel happened to be passed to an amazing editor. I didn’t really have to do anything other than write the thing. It’s not a very representative publishing story.

Where and how do you write best? How many drafts do you go through?

I mostly write at home, and just…well…sit down and write. I rarely outline, although I usually have a sense in my head of where things are going to go eventually. Partially because I have a good internal editor, I don’t usually have to do many full drafts — I just to a lot of editing along the way.

Why do you write for young adults?

Because the ideas that come to me are for YA books. And it’s very, very rewarding to see what happens when these books go out into the world.

Politics factor heavily into your novel WIDE AWAKE. Are you active in politics? How do you feel about the upcoming elections?

I’m an active follower of politics and causes, but my activism is largely literary in nature. And I think the upcoming elections will be a watershed…assuming the good guys win.

You are obviously very in touch with the experiences of being a teenager today, seeing as you write such fantastic books about it. What do you think has changed about being a teen since your own teen years?

The emotions have largely stayed the same, but the technology and means of communication have changed. But that’s true for all of us, not just teens.

Your website says you are “evangelical” about music. What are some of your favorite bands or singers?

This is always a hard one to answer. Off the top of my head, favorites include Death Cab for Cutie, Aimee Mann, Beth Orton, Regina Spektor, Crowded House, Editors, Tegan and Sara, Dar Williams, Damien Rice — oh, honestly, I could go on and on. I’ll leave it there.

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

Well, the whole experience of Boy Meets Boy — seeing what one book can do — has been incredible. But I do genuinely love ’em all. Even that bastard Marly’s Ghost.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Only the usual advice. Which is to write and write and read and write.

What are some of your current projects (as a writer or as an editor) that you’re especially excited about?

As an editor, I have a few teen books coming out this spring that I’m excited about, including Siobhan Vivian’s A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE (about a group of friends that has a falling out after one of the friend’s long-lost father shows up on her 16th birthday) and Brian Malloy’s TWELVE LONG MONTHS (about a straight girl who follows her crush to New York City… only to find out he’s not really into girls.) As for myself, I’m obviously excited about HOW THEY MET — and then in May, one of my collaborations, LIKELY STORY, is hitting stores. It’s a completely fun book, written with two of my friends under the name David Van Etten, and it’s the start of a series about a girl who runs her own soap opera. Complications (funny ones) ensue.

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

I’d just like everyone to read Eireann Corrigan’s ORDINARY GHOSTS. Because not enough people have yet.

Thank you so much, David!

Siobhan Vivian is the author of the fabulous A Little Friendly Advice, an impressive debut about a sixteen-year-old girl named Ruby, her friends, her family, her possible love interest, and, well, life. It’s one that I highly recommend you all read as soon as possible! Anyway, without further ado, the interview. Thanks, Siobhan, for doing this!

Can you tell me a little about your road to publication?

It was a pretty straight shot that began and ended with my acceptance into the New School Univeristy MFA program in Writing for Children. I felt that hard-core training in this very specific genre was the best way for me to approach completing a YA novel. I wrote my butt off for two years whenever I could find a spare moment from my day job as an editor.

During my last semester at school, I started working on A Little Friendly Advice. David Levithan was my thesis advisor, and he helped me massage a very rough idea into a full-fledged novel. He was vital in helping me tell Ruby’s story in the best, most engaging way. I adored working with him!

After graduation, David said that he was interested in publishing ALFA. I got an agent and sold the book, unfinished, to Scholastic a few weeks later.

What authors are some of your biggest writing influences?

Rachel Cohn is a master of voice, Blake Nelson writes the most crisp, clean prose, David Levithan makes me fall in love with words, and Cecil Castellucci oozes creativity and inspiration.

One of the book’s characters, Beth, celebrates her birthday every year with a big Halloween party. What was your best Halloween ever?

I’m going to say sophomore year of college, when my two friends and I went as the PowerPuff Girls. Our costumes were dead on! Everyone knew who we were and wanted to take pictures with us. It was so awesome.

Are you a lot like Ruby, or one of the other characters?

Of all the characters, I think I’m the most like Ruby. We’re both thoughtful and optimistic (to a fault), a little bit weird, not too girly-girly, and we both love our Polaroid cameras.

Do you have a favorite character in the novel?

Hmm. Good question. I’ll say that Katherine was the most fun character to write. Whenever she showed up in a chapter, she brought so much tension with her. And I loved thinking up sharp, snappy things for her to say.

And Charlie was awesome too. I wished he was real, so he could be my boyfriend.

Do you outline before writing?

Yes! I am a firm believer in outlining. I like to know where I’m going before I get there. But I try not to put in too much detail when I’m writing an outline, so I can still let happy accidents and discoveries happen along the way.

How did A Little Friendly Advice change from first draft to final published book?

At the very, very beginning, ALFA was about four girls who came from divorced families. That circumstance was what united them as friends, and they all took care of each other. Ruby’s dad came back the same way he does in ALFA, but in the old version, he wanted to patch things up with her Mom. Ruby worried about how that would affect her friendships, so she actively tried to keep her parents from getting back together.

I still really like elements from that original concept, but it’s a lot stronger now.

A Little Friendly Advice is written for teenagers. Why did you choose to write for this audience, and do you or would you like to write for other audiences?

I have absolutely no interest in writing books for any other audience but YA. I’m a little like Peter Pan, in that I have very much resisted the idea that I had to grow up. I feel way more comfortable in a room full of teenagers than I do with adults. And the story ideas and characters floating around in my brain are always of that genre. I think it’s just how I’m programmed.

A Little Friendly Advice is realistic fiction. Do you or would you like to write other genres?

I’d like to try and write YA magical realism. I took a class on magical realism in college and loved every single book we read.

Ruby begins to take an interest in photography in this book, when her mother gives her an old Polaroid camera. Are you a photographer?
Not officially, but I love snapping photographs. I own a few cameras, including my beloved Polaroid, and took a few photography classes back in high school, when you actually had to load the film by hand in a dark room.

What are you writing now?

I’m working on my second young adult novel for Scholastic. It’ll be out in Spring 2009 and it’s called SAME DIFFERENCE. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s about a girl named Emily who struggles with having two different identities—depending on whether she’s at home with the popular, suburban friends she grew up with, or hanging out in a city with a super cool, wild new girl she befriends in a summer art class.

What are some of your favorite books or authors?

I am really, really into graphic novels. My favorite of all time is BLANKETS by Craig Thompson. I tell every single person I know to read it and be ready to fall in love.
Is there a question you wish I’d asked, or anything else you’d like to add?
I wish you had asked me how awesome you are on a scale from one to ten.
I’d have said an eleven.

Aw, thank you so much!

I’m very pleased to be a stop on Sara Zarr’s blog tour for the release of her latest book, Sweethearts. She is also the author of the 2007 National Book Award Finalist Story of a Girl. Both books are amazing, and, if you haven’t read them, go and do so! Now! Anyway, without further ado, here is my interview with Sara.

How long have you known you wanted to be a writer? What was your path to publication like?

I’ve known I wanted it to be my career since I was about 25 (12 years ago!), and I enjoyed writing and stories long before that. My path to publication, like so many, was pretty rough. Every year from about 1996 to 2004 I thought, “This is it. This is my year.” In 2005, it finally was. Those who want to write for publication have to have a lot of patience. You’ve got to wait for your skill, your voice, your stories, the right agent, the right editor, the right market to all converage on the time/space continuum. It takes a lot of faith to believe that will happen.

How has the experience of being a published author been different from what you expected?

I’m surprised and disappointed that I’m still as insecure as I always was! Sometimes, maybe even more insecure. Writing hasn’t gotten any easier. There no sense of arrival. I’m surprised and delighted by the enthusiasm of fans. Their emails mean so much, and always seem to come at just the right time. The support and general wonderfulness of peers in the YA world and the people at my publisher (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) have been great, too.

What was your inspiration for writing Sweethearts?

While casting about for ideas for a next book, my old childhood sweetheart got back in touch and we had this cool, surprising bond. I let my imagination wander and started asking those “what if” questions that are always the beginning of a good story.

Are you like Jenna (or were you at her age)? How?

A little, yeah. I never trusted my place in my social circle and always felt surprised whenever it would dawn on me that my friends actually cared about me. Like Jenna, I turned to food when stressed or lonely or bored. I had this boyfriend once that I thought was too good for me and I imagined other people asking themselves, “Why is he with her?” Little things like that went into Jenna’s personality.

In Sweethearts, you tell two stories about Jenna and Cameron–one from their shared past, and then the story of their present. Was it difficult to tell both stories simultaneously, without giving up either one?

It was a bit of a technical challenge. Dealing with flashbacks or stuff from the past is always a trick. You don’t want a giant info-dump at the beginning, but you also don’t want to annoy the reader by withholding too much for too long. I’m still not convinced I hit the perfect balance but I tried to space the flashbacks out in a way that made sense. The story from the past was important for understanding the story of the present so I didn’t want to give it short shrift. That was something my editor and I worked on quite a bit.

Why do you write for a young adult audience? Do you, would you like to, or do you plan to write for other audiences?

Really, I don’t think about the audience much while I’m writing. Selfishly, I try to write a story that I would love to read, and those seem to mostly involve teenagers. I’ve always been a fan of YA and think the YA category is one of the richest and most interesting in publishing right now. I do hope to have a long career in which I get a chance to try a lot of different things. Lately in my dabbling time I’m trying to figure out how to make short stories work. Everything I start feels like the beginning of a novel.

What jobs have you done in the past? If you weren’t a writer, what would you most like to do?

I have had major job ADD since I first entered the workforce at 16. It’s a good thing I’m a writer, because my “day job” resume looks awful—I rarely lasted anywhere more than 18 months because of boredom or impatience with a work situation. I’ve been a file clerk, a cook, an office manager, a church secretary, an account rep with a printing firm, an indexer, a corporate trainer, a data entry cog, a receptionist…anything to pay the bills while I pursued writing. I honestly don’t know what I’d do with myself if I weren’t a writer. The things I’m seriously interested in would require a lot more education and I don’t know if I could do (and pay for) college again. I wouldn’t mind making a movie some day!

What are you writing now (if you are okay with sharing that)?

My main job is writing my third YA novel for Little, Brown. Some of the ingredients are: a pastor’s daughter, a small town, a crime, an older man, a parent in rehab, an excruciatingly hot summer.

You do a wonderful job writing realistic characters and capturing the relationships between them. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers struggling to do the same thing?

Thanks! I think the key is to work from the inside out. For instance, if you’re writing about a mother-daughter relationship you might start out thinking, “I want this mother and this daughter to have communication issues” (or trust problems or anger or disappointment or whatever the thing is) and try to layer that on top of the story like so much spackle. That doesn’t work, though—for me, anyway. I have to know the characters a bit and get a sense of their story and then go in and really think about where those problems might come from and how they would manifest in small, subtle ways. Human interaction is so much about the tiny ways we miss each other or manage to connect, the little letdowns and minor triumphs. Being aware of those things in your own life definitely helps when you’re trying to get them into a story.

Now, the ask-yourself-a-question question! What’s a question I didn’t ask you that you’d like to be asked (and the answer)?

I love to cook, and when I used to subscribe to Bon Appetit I always enjoyed the last page where they’d interview some celebrity and say, “Name three things in your refrigerator right now.” And so: leftover turkey loaf, a bag of red potatoes, and some buttermilk I keep forgetting to use in my baked goods.

Thanks so much for doing this, Sara!

Thank you!