Author Archives: WendyS

Happily Ever After – Again?

The news of a second book from the previously most famous one-off author in the world, Harper Lee, put into sharp focus our conflicting feelings about tinkering around the edges of a classic.  While part of the book-o-sphere went nuts with joy and began ordering their share of the two-million book print run that Harper Collins was putting out for Go Set a Watchman, another faction worried that Lee had been, perhaps, coerced into publishing what is said to be the parent to one of the most beloved books of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird.  And even if Lee is putting out her new book willingly, there is another, perhaps unspoken, concern: that the second book might mar the patina of the first.

The possible cover of Harper Lee's new book

The possible cover of Harper Lee’s new book

There’s the rub of the sequel we love – we want more but only if it’s just right.  Otherwise, it might put a blot on the story that has a place in our hearts.  It’s easier to keep things just so, than to risk imperfection; it reminds me of a Far Side cartoon, showing a luckless stonemason looking over the fallen nose of a sphinx.  His friend scolds (and I’m paraphrasing here), “It was fine.  Good nose.  But you had to hit the chisel one more time.

I’m afraid of the one more time.

Perhaps that was the draw of Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recently released autobiography, which shocked some (but not true Bonnetheads) by a demand that put its modest publisher, the South Dakota Historical Society Press, into overdrive.  Pioneer Girl let us have the best of both worlds: we keep the fictionalized Ingalls family intact, while allowing us to learn more about the author.

What makes some extensions more accepted than others?  We seem to have an insatiable hunger for anything Harry Potter, perhaps because it has always been a series.  I adored Harriet the Spy, and have read it multiple times, I recently struggled to read the Louise Fitzhugh estate-authorized Harriet Spies Again, by Helen Ericson.  While there is much to like, occasionally I would find what I felt was an off-note that was not true to the original Harriet.  At the bottom end of the scale is Twilight Barking, the almost-unkown sequel to another favorite of mine, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is by all accounts, a trippy detour into a world with extraterrestrial dogs.

starlight barking

For writers, I think it must take trust in oneself as well.  For my money, one of the gutsiest moves of all time in the-first-one-was-great-land was Gennifer Choldenko’s decision to release not one but two sequels to her Newbery Honor-winning Al Capone Does My Shirts.  Al Capone Does My Shirts has, in my opinion, one of the most perfect endings in middle-grade books, and once you add a Newbery sticker, it must be tempting to say, there, that’s enough.  But to take the risk and finish the stories you want to write – that’s pretty darn cool in my book.

Al Capone

And maybe that’s where I have to take all my trepidation about these other books, whether they are sequels or some extension; if the author, whether original or successor, has enough guts to put another story out, maybe I should be willing to read it in that spirit.  Eoin Colfer, heir to the cult-status Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, had a visitor at ComicCon who perhaps put it best.  “I’m gonna read this new book before I hate it,” he promised Colfer, holding a copy of Colfer’s contribution And Another Thing.  And perhaps, once we read it, we won’t need to hate (or fear) it at all.

Wendy Shang’s second book, The Way Home Looks Now, is not a sequel.

A Conversation (and book giveaway!) with Augusta Scattergood, Author of THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY

We are thrilled today to have Augusta Scattergood, author of the award-winning Glory Be and her new book, The Way to Stay in Destiny. I consider my new book, The Way Home Looks Now, to be a ‘book twins” with Augusta’s book, since both take place in the 70’s and include baseball-loving boys. To find out what else we have in common, read on!9780545538244

WS: THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY is about young Theo, who moves to Destiny, Florida with his very surly uncle in the wake of the Vietnam War. There, Theo tries to make new friends, negotiate a new life and solve a mystery, using his love of baseball and talent for music. How did DESTINY first come to you?

AG: Believe it or not, I started this new book as part of a writing exercise from a workshop. Something about old sneakers and a belt and –Go! You know those things you scribble in notebooks and think you’ll never use again? That paragraph morphed into a memory of visiting Florida as a child and hearing about baseball players who’d lived there for spring training. Seven or so years after that sneakers and belt paragraph, it’s a book!

Are you a big baseball fan? You wove baseball seamlessly into a relatively serious story that often made me laugh out loud.

the way home looks now

WS: Big baseball fan might be a bit of a stretch, but it was the only organized sport I played as a child, and I do enjoy the occasional Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park. I do love the old-fashioned pace of baseball in our ramped-up world, and as you saw in the book, the very unusual rules that have sprung out of the game.

In addition to playing a season of baseball, I also took several resistant years of piano, and I loved the scenes of Theo playing the piano – you really made me feel as though my own fingers were flying over the keys. I feel like writing about music is sort of like writing about food – it’s really difficult to convey those sensations on paper, but when it’s done right, it’s just completely marvelous. Did you rely on your own love or talent for music, or what did you do to write these scenes?

AG: I was the queen of Resistant Piano. So, talent? Not much. But I understand and love music. I admire pianists especially. I had a friend in his 80s who played beautifully by ear. I asked him many questions. A lot of what Theo thought and said came directly from talking to that gentleman. And for the first time while writing, I actually listened to music. Music from the 70s. Country music. Thelonious Monk. I made a playlist! Even though GLORY BE was filled with Elvis tunes and Beatles references, I’ve never made and listened to a playlist for a book before.

WS: Resistant piano players, unite! As for a playlist, I haven’t had that happen for me yet, though I love it when writers reach into other disciplines for inspiration.

Let’s go from music to geography. Both of your books take place in the South. GLORY BE takes place in Mississippi in 1964, and DESTINY takes place about ten years later in Florida. I love how you describe both places with such a lovely sense of atmosphere. When I read your books, I swear I can feel the hot air on my neck or the cooling breeze of a nearby beach. What do you think about when you write about place?

GBTS-Scattergood-photo

AS: Thanks, Wendy. Although I’ve lived mostly outside the South as an adult, truthfully, I don’t think I could set a story any other place. But never say never, right?

For THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY, I discovered two perfect Old Florida towns. Dunedin and Pass-a-Grille, not too far from where I live now. I spent a lot of time ambling, checking out the lizards, the Spanish moss, the brightly-colored flowers. And truly, growing up in a small southern town in the 50s and 60s, I have a lot of memories of heat!

WS: What is your connection to the South, and do you consider yourself a Southern writer? (And if yes, what do you think it means to be a Southern writer?)

AS: My entire family has always lived in the Deep South. When I went “north” to college (Chapel Hill, NC) my grandmother was sure I was leaving the country. My connections run deep.

I’m not sure if kids notice whether someone is a Southern writer or not. What they’re looking for is a good story. But I’m happy to fall into that category. I think it does have to do with setting and that sense of place. Everything plays into that. The characters’ names, the food, the weather—all can be signs of writing Southern.

I’m not crazy about using a lot of dialect in books for young readers, but there’s a certain rhythm to our words and to the way we speak that makes a book feel more Southern than others.

WS: I love your UNC story! I went even further “north” at the University of Virginia. Now let’s talk about time. Both of our books take place in the early 1970’s. What was your challenge about writing about the 1970’s? What kind of research did you conduct?

AS: Recently, I heard someone say that historical facts and details should not be mere “window dressing” for a story. Use them sparingly and carefully. Make sure they move or deepen your story. Uncle Raymond’s problems were an important part of this book. His involvement in the Vietnam conflict was crucial to his relationship with his family.

For that part of my research, I listened to my friends who’d been in the military, as well as oral history interviews with veterans. I wanted to get his voice just right.

I loved that about THE WAY HOME LOOKS NOW. For those of us who lived through the 70s, your tiny details were perfect. Those record and tape club letters, for example, I remember—they were endless!

And looking up an address in a phone book. Does anybody do that now?

phone

WS: I do, but I’m not sure about the upcoming generation. I had a friend who had to teach her teenage son how to address an envelope! He’d never done it before. But I love how time changes little day-to-day details.

AS: I suspect even if I were writing a contemporary story, I’d be drawn to the research. Of course, the internet has made that part of writing easier, but I still love pouring over books and old newspapers in the quiet of a library. In fact, my most recent research has included telephone and city directories from the 1950s. Those phone books still come in handy, don’t they?

WS: Absolutely! Newspapers were essential for my research for HOME. While I started because I wanted to see how national events were covered, I was drawn in by the smaller, local articles. There was an article about how a married woman wanted to keep her maiden name on her driver’s license –and was denied; it really summed up the times for me.

When I first started writing, I came across a book that had similar elements as mine, and I was worried about being perceived as a copycat. Now I can see the beauty of having two stories that are similar in some ways, but can tell completely different stories. Thank you for coming on the Files, Augusta!

For your chance to win copies of both The Way to Stay in Destiny and The Way Home Looks Now, leave a comment with your most significant 70’s moment or object – from Watergate to pet rocks – just name it!

Interview and Giveaway with Molly Burnham, author of TEDDY MARS: ALMOST A WORLD RECORD BREAKER

 

I am THRILLED to have debut middle-grade author Molly Burnham on our blog.  In fact, you might say I could set the WORLD RECORD in thrillsy-ness because Molly is the author of TEDDY MARS: ALMOST A WORLD RECORD BREAKER!

TM1-cover

Teddy is determined to set a world record, no matter what it takes!  What world record do you think you could conquer?  Do you have a favorite world record?  Did you do any unusual research for this book?

Teddy is the kid I wish I had been: persistent, determined, and obsessed. I’m certain I don’t have the qualities required to break a record on my own. Although one friend suggested I break the record for sleeping in a sweater for the most days in a row (I do sleep in a sweater all winter because I’m always cold).

Really, I’d like to do a community event-it’s part of my punk ethic-something where a group needs to chip in. I do better with loads of people around (this is true for many parts of my life except writing). So I think it would be a record for the largest group to pick up trash, or paint a mural, or create a park, or paint a school, or build a library.

I have to say, I don’t have a favorite record. I really appreciate the creativity of everyone who breaks a record. There are definitely records that don’t appeal to me as much, like having the most Twitter followers. It just doesn’t seem as amazing as running in flippers, or eating jellybeans with chopsticks.

Some of Teddy’s ideas are pretty outlandish – including a scheme involving pigeons and POOP.  Where did you get these ideas?  Did you have to go through a lot of ideas to get to the gems?

First off, I try to hang out with kids as much as possible. They are geniuses and they are hilarious. They remind me of all the creative ways we might approach life. Second off, I keep my eyes open for moments of funniness in everyone (including myself) like the fart scene with all the relatives. That came because my husband and I seem to fart a lot lately. (I definitely didn’t farted as much when I was a kid.) I thought it would be even funnier to have a whole family of grown-ups farting.  Because what’s funnier than that? And, yes, sometimes I go through a lot of ideas to find the best one. I often sketch these out in drawings instead of writing them down, because the book is very slapstick humor, and pictures help me with that.

Molly as a totally terrific seafaring kid!

Molly as a totally terrific seafaring kid!

When/how did the idea for Teddy first come to you?  Did the situation or the character come first?

Aspects of the story had been swirling in my brain for some time. I had taught third grade and was struck by how the students still loved The Guinness Book of World Records, and how much I had loved it as a kid. So I was interested in writing about a kid who loved the book. I also thought a lot about siblings and about feeling seen by your family. That came from my experience as a child, as well as with my children who sometimes do not feel like I see them, or understand them.

The first sentence came out of me like a satisfying burp. One day I was writing in my kitchen, at the time we had a cat and an enclosed cat box, and I thought, what if a kid liked climbing into a cat box? Right away Teddy started speaking, and he wouldn’t let go. After that, it was up to me to follow him and the rest of the characters around until the story was written.

Teddy has many siblings, including a little brother known as THE DESTRUCTOR, who is always ruining Teddy’s plans.  Did you come from a large family?  As a writer, was it hard to portray these dynamics/manage all the characters?  Do you use charts, index cards, Scrivener?

I come from a small family, just an older sister. I do have a number of friends from large families, and my husband has quite a few siblings. I found in talking with them that the emotions are very similar in whatever family size you’re from, but how much attention is paid to you changes with the amount of children. Although, I would say, as a child of the 1970’s, I don’t think parents paid a lot of attention to us no matter how small the family. But I’ll be curious how my kids reflect on their childhood. Most of the characters are little bits of me, or people I know, and then a lot of imagination.

I start writing by hand in notebooks. I keep those around and scribble in them. I love sticky notes for writing notes to myself, but I don’t carefully post them on a bulletin board. I don’t even own a bulletin board. I just make piles on my desk. Mostly my rule about writing is to not have any rules.  I have to embrace the chaos in my own life. Sometimes I write all day, sometimes my kids are sick, sometimes I have to go to the dentist, sometimes I get up at five in the morning, and sometimes I stay up late. I really don’t have any rules. (I tried Scrivener, but it’s too organized for me).

I do have a treadmill desk, and I walk when I’m writing. But when I’m editing I sit. Or else I feel like I’ll throw up.

Molly Burnham

Author Molly Burnham – NOT throwing up

 

Teddy has some fabulous tips on how to set a world record.  What are your tips for writing a FUNNY book?

I wish I could answer this question better than to say I read a lot of funny books. Then I keep them close to me so that whenever I get serious (which can happen rather more easily than I’d like) I open one of those books and read a passage and then remember I’m writing a funny book and revise with that in mind. Right now I have a Junie B. Jones book on my desk and Emily Jenkins’ book Toys Go Out. I also watch funny TV shows.

 What’s next for you?

There are two more Teddy Mars books coming out. The second book, Teddy Mars Almost a Winner, is with Trevor Spencer (the extraordinary illustrator) right now. And I’m working on the third book. I have lots of other stories I’d like to offer the world. But Teddy Mars is my priority right now.

Thanks, Molly!  If you have a world-record contender in your life who would like a copy of TEDDY MARS: ALMOST A WORLD RECORD BREAKER, leave a comment about what world record YOU’D like to break!