Today we’re lucky to have author Rose Kent with us to talk about writing, family, ice cream, and her latest novel, Rocky Road (Knopf, 2010).
Lest you think ice cream is out of season in March—think again. Here’s the Indiebound description of Rocky Road:
Ice cream warms the heart, no matter what the weather. That’s the Dobson family motto. Whenever things get tough, they break out the special heart-shaped bowls and make sundaes. The road has been especially rocky lately for Tess and her deaf little brother, Jordan. Their plucky Texan mother talks big, but her get-rich-quick business schemes have only landed them in serious financial hot water. Ma’s newest idea is drastic. She abruptly moves the family to snowy Schenectady, New York, where she will use the last of their savings to open her dream business: an ice cream shop. (Too bad the only place she could find an apartment is in a senior citizens’ complex.) Tess wants to be excited about this plan, but life in Schenectady is full of new worries. Who will buy ice cream in their shop’s run-down neighborhood? What will happen when their money runs out? Worst of all is Ma herself—she’s famous for her boundless energy and grandiose ideas, but only Tess and Jordan know about the dark days when she crashes and can’t get out of bed. And Tess can’t seem to find the right words to talk to Ma about it.
Welcome, Rose! Thank you so much for visiting The Mixed-up Files.
What was the spark for Tess’s story? It seems her heart-shaped bowl is full of troubles when she lands in Schenectady.
Rocky Road was inspired by a big pot of life experiences, observations and subconscious thoughts. For one, like my character, Tess, I moved close to Schenectady, NY, some years back. The circumstances were very different than in Rocky Road, but I vividly recall the feeling of being new and how freezing cold it was! I imagine many readers who have experienced heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures this winter can relate. I remember being at a Mobil station, pumping gas as snow fell fast and furious. (It felt like a record-setting blizzard. I have since learned it was your average Northeaster.) As I stood shivering and pumping gas, I looked over and noticed two kids in the backseat of the car beside me. Our eyes met, they waved and I waved back. On closer look, I saw they were using sign language. On closer look, I saw they were using sign language. Watching their fingers glide through the air with such expression, it struck me as so beautiful and incredibly fluid. That got me wondering what it might be like if a family with a deaf child moved to the area from a warmer climate, especially if the family had been down on their luck to begin with. Add to this fact that Tess’s mom struggles with bipolar disorder. One thing led to another, and the seed for the story was planted.
One of the things I love about Rocky Road is how Tess is able to thrive—not just through her own efforts—but because of the support of the community she builds at school, in the senior citizen complex where she lives, and even the run-down neighborhood of Schenectady where her mother’s ice-cream shop is located. Tess has a bowlful of challenges, but it’s ultimately an uplifting story. There’s even a bit of a nod to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life at the end of the story. It seems that kids who have family members with bipolar disorder or who have had to take on adult responsibilities for other reasons would find comfort and inspiration in Tess’s story. What has been the response from readers?
Thank you, Laurie, for the nice words. I am a huge admirer of Frank Capra’s films, and in particular, It’s A Wonderful Life. I am delighted if the film’s hopeful influence comes across in Rocky Road too. You are so right. Many kids today are shouldering adult responsibilities. Certainly this is true when there are mental health challenges in the family. In any given year, mental illness affects 22 percent of Americans to a level that adversely impacts overall health, work and relationships. Many of these people are parents, so of course it touches children’s lives.
I hear from kids through my website, RoseKent.com, who are touched by my books. It’s nice to learn that they enjoy my story, but it moves me even more when they share their life stories and how the book in some small way, has helped them prod on. I recently got an email from an eleven-year-old girl in the Midwest. She said she related to Tess in Rocky Road. Her father, like Tess’s mother, has mental health problems that often send him to bed or the hospital for weeks at a time. She wrote that she hadn’t been able to talk about the situation outside her family and yet it affects how she does in school and on her soccer team, and whether or not there is even enough food in the house to make dinner, since her mom is often busy with her father. She wrote that she saw how Tess talking about her problems with Winnie (a senior citizen in the book who lives in the same apartment complex) helped her, and that she was going to try to confide in a good friend when things got hard. That made my day. I think it does take a village to make it through this world and deal with our problems. If this girl reaches out to someone because of a character in my book, I am grateful for it.
Could you talk a little about your writing process? Are you a plotter a plunger? Were there elements of the story that surprised you?
To plot or to plunge, that is the question, right? I think I am a little of both. I usually start a new work after a self-made movie scene sort of plays in my head. At that point I declare, “I am going to write a story about this kind of kid who has this problem, and who wants to do this, etc., etc.” Then I plunge in, thinking I’m set to crank out 200 pages, only to realize that uh, I’m stuck. I am not sure where I am going. So I step back, do a little more research and a little plotting to get me through a few chapters. Then I plunge back in. This back and forth feels like a convoluted way of writing, but it’s what works best for me.
You bet, elements of the story surprised me. (Warning: Rocky Road spoiler ahead.) I didn’t expect Ma to get so sick on opening day of the ice cream shop. That hit me out of the blue, but of course it made sense because bipolar disorder often strikes at high-stress times, and opening a new business would be stressful for Ma.
There’s been some controversy in the blogosphere lately over the number of children’s books with dead or missing parents—what Penguin editor Leila Sales calls “The Ol’ Dead Dad Syndrome.” Parents have strong roles in both of your novels, though—Rocky Road and Kimchi & Calamari (HarperCollins, 2007). What are your feelings about the portrayal of parents and families in middle-grade fiction?
Families are so diverse these days—ethnically of course, but also the structure of families and who is leading them. We see stepfamilies, single parent families, families led by grandparents, and families with a deceased parent or parents. I think we need more middle-grade fiction that reflects this diversity. I know some editors think the dead mom or dead dad book is overdone, and perhaps there are many, but I say there is room for all kinds of families in story. Kids today still experience changing family dynamics including parents who die, and there are stories to be told.
For me it’s important that whatever the family structure, parents can’t be stock characters, that their individuality, warts and all, is reflected. I tried hard to do this with the parents in Rocky Road, even though Pa wasn’t present, and with Joseph’s parents in Kimchi & Calamari.
Another thing both of your stories share is food—Italian and Korean in your first book and lots of luscious ice cream treats in your latest. What role did food play in your life growing up and in your family today?
I’m with Oliver Twist when he proclaimed, “Food, glorious food!” I’m a big fan of food —you too? As an author food is a tool I like to use to give clues to my character’s life. Who prepares food for my character? What is he/she willing to eat? My first book, Kimchi & Calamari, has a foodie title. The story is about a funny kid who feels torn between his Korean birth identity and his Italian adoptive family and life. Food was a light metaphor for how Joseph felt about himself, like a restaurant combo platter.
I grew up on Long Island, which all Long Islanders know is home to the world’s best pizza, bagels and deli sandwiches. I was lucky enough to have a mom who always fed me with TLC, from when I was a little tyke, to when I was a teen. We celebrated life over tasty meals, and we comforted each other on hard days with food too. A lot is written about how bad foods can hurt us, but there is so much benefit that comes from the body and soul nourishment of good food.
Sounds a lot like my family, too, Rose. What do you think is special about the middle-grade years? What things were important to you when you were that age and how do you think they’ve influenced your writing?
I truly love writing for this age. Middle-school kids still seem like sponges to me, ready to learn and absorb so much about life. I appreciate how they find humor in the obvious and not so obvious too. And at the same time, they are starting to “get it” about life. They understand challenges and triumphs to the human spirit.
The magic of book and stories was important to me at this age—no surprise coming from an author. I was a shy, freckle-face kid. Teachers would ask questions in class and I wanted to contribute, but I couldn’t find the courage to raise my hand. But even when I couldn’t find my voice to speak, I could always write. This was the prehistoric period before computers, and I would go home, get comfy on the couch with a snack, and write page after page of a story on loose-leaf paper. My characters were brave, strong-willed girls who time traveled, did karate, and always beat the bad guys. They gave me escape and they also became my role models.
In her recent interview in the Mixed-Up Files, Kirby Larson talked about perseverance. What keeps you going as a writer?
Readers and fellow writers fuel me on. Readers because as I mentioned, I meet them at school visits and book signings, and they write and email me and share their lives and how my books how touched them. If they take the time to do that, I better push on with my newest book. My fellow writers inspire me too. Blogs like The Mixed Up Files encourage me because I learn how others press on facing adversity on the page and in life, and I get ideas for better handling the craft. I never tire of hearing other writers share how they write and why they write. It feels like this big well of inspiration that we all dip into.
What’s up next for you? Do you have any other middle-grade projects in the works you can share with our readers? Will there be more food?
There will always be food in my books. Not only in my books, but beside my computer as I write them, but I digress…I’m finishing up a middle-grade novel about a spunky girl named Mimi who decides to use summer vacation to set a world record. I’m having a lot of fun writing this one, in part because Mimi is a live wire redhead and I have red hair too.
One final question. Why did you set Rocky Road in an ice cream shop?
It’s almost cliché to say this but true. I love ice cream. I love how it brings out the happy in people. It’s hard to stay mad or sad while you’re licking a double scoop cone—try it and see if I am right. This “tasty” insight came to me when I was writing Rocky Road and trying to decide what type of business the Dobson family would open. As I started writing this story it was amazing how many people shared their ice cream stories with me. Stories about family outings at the ice cream parlor to celebrate having danced in a dance recital or getting a good report card. Tearjerker stories too about the time they struck out during an important Little League game but a parent took them for ice cream anyway, or when their first true love dumped them. “Ice cream warms the heart, no matter what the weather,” that’s the Dobson family motto, and I think they’re on to something.
All this talk of ice cream is making me hungry. What’s your favorite flavor, Rose?
I thought you’d never ask! Coffee. And yours? You close your eyes; I’ll close mine, and readers, you do the same. Now let’s imagine we’re all hanging out by a sunny beach together, enjoying a cone with our favorite flavor. Nothing better in the world!
Thank you, Laurie, for this opportunity to chat. Being a writer means we’re part of a special village, and I am grateful for you and the other writers of this blog.
Aw shucks! (Shuffles feet.) Thank you, Rose!
Do you have a favorite ice cream memory? Leave a comment here to win your very own copy of Rocky Road. The winner will be announced on Sunday, March 20.
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Laurie Schneider is from central Wisconsin—America’s Dairyland—where she grew up on Herschleb’s hand-packed ice cream. Today her favorite flavor is the lemon chiffon at Ferdinand’s Creamery at Washington State University.