Want to know about funny? Ask Donna Gephart, she knows all about it. She’s been writing stories about funny characters for over 20 years. Her first book, As if Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President, even won the Sid Fleischman Award!
Her latest book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen released yesterday and is already getting rave reviews.
From Indie Bound: Olivia Bean knows trivia. She watches Jeopardy! every night and usually beats at least one of the contestants. If she were better at geography, she would try out for the show’s kids’ week. Not only could she win bundles of money, she’d get to go to the taping in California, where her dad, who left two years ago and who Olivia misses like crazy, lives with his new family. One day Olivia’s friend-turned-nemesis, Tucker, offers to help her bulk up her geography knowledge. Before Olivia knows it, she’s getting help from all sorts of unexpected sources: her almost-stepdad, superannoying Neil; her genius little brother, Charlie; even her stressed-out mom. Soon she has breezed through the audition rounds and is headed for Hollywood! But will the one person she wants to impress more than anyone else show up to support her?
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2012: “This tale will have readers cheering for the resilient, resourceful Olivia.”
I had the pleasure of first meeting Donna in 2009 at the SCBWI Miami conference. I attended her workshop on “How to Create Quirky Characters”. For 90 wonderful minutes, Donna kept us in stitches. We laughed. We cried. We learned. She taught us how to find the quirkiness inside ourselves and put it into our characters. I still have those fantastic notes and have referred to them many times while writing my own fiction.
So let’s meet this incredible author and teacher. First of all Donna,
Why did you decide to make this story for middle grade readers?
I love writing middle grade fiction. It such a crazy time of ups and downs, both physically and emotionally for kids that age, so it’s an ideal landscape for dramatic (and funny) fiction.
What was your favorite part about writing this book?
Reading books of trivia was entertaining. Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen has more than 100 bits of fun (and sometimes gross) trivia woven through the story.
It was also fun to learn about the behind-the-scenes workings of the TV quiz show Jeopardy! and write those tense, competitive scenes.
Your books seem to show kids that are longing to be popular, but yet their nerdiness or intelligence keeps them out of the group. Did you feel that way as a kid? Do you have any advice for kids who feel this way?
Of course I felt that way! Didn’t every children’s book author feel that way?
There’s a moment in this book where Olivia’s little “bother” Charlie says, “It’s fun to be smart, Livi.” And she wants here brother to hang onto that feeling because Olivia’s learned it’s not so much fun to be the smartest one in your class when you’re in middle school. It can make you the target of unwanted attention. Olivia always feels like an outcast . . . until, through Jeopardy!, she meets other kids who are smart like her.
My advice to young people who find great pleasure in things of the mind: While it may not be popular in middle school to be smart, it provides a lifetime of joy and entertainment. You will meet fascinating people and never be bored.
Do you have any interesting stories to share about how this book came about or things you encountered while writing it?
I had sent an advanced reader’s copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen to Ken Jennings — Jeopardy! champ and author of the best-selling Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. He’s such a funny, generous guy. (If you like trivia, check out his Tuesday Trivia and read his blog; it’s highly entertaining.) I was over-the-moon excited when Ken wrote a lovely blurb that appears on the back cover of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen.
For those aspiring authors out there, can you give us an idea of your process? How long was it from the first glimmer of a story idea to your book launch day?
As usual, I had trouble coming up with my next book. I kept trying new ideas that didn’t work out. So, when I read about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I knew this was just the motivation I needed.
The title came to me during a writing/scribbling session at my local library two days before NaNoWriMo began.
The day before, I figured out that Olivia loved trivia . . . and someone who loved trivia might want to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!
Then, by some miracle, I wrote Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen in 29 days. I blogged daily about the experience here.
My agent, Tina Wexler at International Creative Management, reminds me to mention how long it took me to revise the book – months and months! Even though I revised quite a bit during the month of writing, the book still needed much revision afterward. Books are pesky like that!
I was thrilled to learn that the book sold about three months after I finished it.
Then, of course, it was two long years until the book launched.
Any piece of advice for writers wishing to create a quirky, funny character?
Look for the one thing that makes your character unusual and use that as your starting point to create a fully-developed character with complex relationships with friends, family, teachers, etc. In each of my books, my characters had one thing that made him/her unique:
1. As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President – Vanessa Rothrock is a klutzy, awkward spelling bee champ. (She reads the dictionary for fun and loves playing Scrabble with her mother.)
3. Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen — Olivia is a trivia whiz, like her father, who abandoned the family two years earlier. She never misses an episode of Jeopardy!
And there you have it. How to find your own quirkiness and use it to create a wonderful character. Thanks for stopping by, Donna. It’s been delightful!
To learn more about Donna and her books, be sure to visit her website. And don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered to win an autographed copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen! The winner will be announced on Saturday, March 17th.
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Jennifer Swanson is a self-professed science geek and knows all about carrying bits of trivia around in her head. At one time, she could recite the entire periodic table from memory. She would have been happy to help Olivia prep for her Jeopardy appearance.