Tag Archives: Author Interview

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: An Interview with Avi

As a big fan of other novels by Avi like Crispin: The Cross of Lead and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled to get to read an advance copy of The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts and interview Avi. If you’re devoted to middle grade historical fiction, action, and adventure, you’ll definitely want to read this one!

About the Book

In The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a young boy wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. It’s 1724 in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, and Oliver is alone with no money and no food. His father has left behind a barely legible, waterlogged note stating that he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in some kind of trouble.

Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him from being sent to the ghastly children’s poorhouse, and he can’t resist temptation. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following his father’s trail. His journey is full of cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves—but when he finally reaches his destination, Oliver finds that London might be the most dangerous place of all.

The Interview

All the reviews, which have been glowing and star-studded, compare this story to those of Charles Dickens. Are the wonderful similarities they note intentional? Is your book an homage to Dickens?

Thanks for your kind words about The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts. I am a reader and admirer of Dickens, but I think this book is cast more in the light of those great 18th century literary lights, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, et al.

My real homage to Dickens is to be found in Traitors’ Gate. It is full of references to Dickens and his life. Indeed, my hero there is named John Huffam, which is taken from Dickens’ extended name.

Oliver is a fantastic character. He’s pugnacious and funny and brave. There’s so much to love about him. Where are the points of intersection between Oliver and a contemporary twelve year old? Where do they diverge?

Young people today, as in the 18th century, lived and still live in a world created, and usually controlled by adults. Not necessarily a bad thing, and often a necessary thing.  That said, the young will often chaff under the restrictions, both physical and psychological of the adult world. Keenly aware of what is fair and unfair, they are the ones who should sit on the Supreme Court.

As I was reading your book, I was struck by the very tricksy way you use language. Here’s a bit from the first page:

On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching. Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed.

You manage to start with action but also language that feels appropriate for the 1700s. Can you tell us how you chose language that evoked the time period but was still accessible to young readers?

I have a great love of language and words. I enjoy browsing through dictionaries. (Short chapters!) English, the only language (alas) I know, has a huge and wonderfully rich vocabulary that has evolved over centuries. All of it is available to the writer.  (And language invention is welcome.) I love using old, but understandable words in a historical context. Indeed, when writing historical fiction one of the key challenges is giving the language itself a sense of the past. I think of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary as my writing partner.

One of my favorite things about this book is how funny it is. As I read, I started marking particularly funny lines, and by the end, I had a ton of tagged pages. Here’s one of my favorites:

I am of the belief that when two adults exchange a meaningful look in the presence of a child, there is little doubt that the adults will have nothing pleasing to say to that child.

Oliver is both astute and funny in this passage. And what about the horrible Mr. Probert (who gets what he deserves if you ask me!), who says:

An authority has written: The sooner poor children are put to laborious, painful work, the more patiently they will submit to it forever.

And of course, in this description of Oliver’s father:

A stiff-rumped clink-clank.

I could go on quoting you to yourself for a long time, but instead, can you tell us about the role of humor in this book? Dickens wasn’t very funny. How did you work in the laughs and still end up with a book that feels Dickensian?

Funny is serious work. In this book, what is humorous comes out of Oliver’s character, who is often alone, and keenly observant. But it also derives from the historical style of the 18th century, which can be comical and satirical. Writers of that day looked upon the world with amusement, affection, and skepticism, as did our own Benjamin Franklin.

The poorhouse where Oliver ends up is pretty awful, and Oliver’s escape from it is pretty marvelous. Were there really places like that for children in the 1700s?

The poorhouse is based on research I did, even to the daily food allowance.  I also came upon an image of a punishment basket. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to use it.

I know there is a ton of research behind this book. Were there any delicious factual tidbits that would have loved to work in to the pages but didn’t have room for?

As for what I left out, there is a whole library about British prisons, Newgate in particular, that could have been included. I somewhat regret that I did not use more of that.

We at the Mixed-Up Files are obsessed with middle grade literature. Why are you drawn to writing for this age group? What do you think characterizes middle grade and makes it distinct from young adult or adult books with young protagonists like those by Dickens?

I love the way middle-graders read. They are passionate readers, who can engage fully with the experiences depicted in a story. They embrace character and plot with enthusiasm. They care about what happens. They can be articulate about what they read, too, but not in a pedantic fashion. “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “I loved it.” I hated it.”

“It was boring.” “It was exciting.” All cool.

They approach reading with both hands and an open heart.

I once had a letter from a middle-schooler which began, “I read your book, and it was boring at first. But by page two it got really good.”

I loved that.

They also like puns.

For the reader who adores The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, which one of your other books should he or she read while waiting for the next installment?

Those who enjoy The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts might like the above mentioned, Traitors’ Gate, and also, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin, Beyond the Western Sea, Catch You Later, Traitor—all adventures stories with historical settings, all character driven.

I know more books are in the works. Any hints about what dreadful fate will next befall our noble hero?

As for Oliver’s fate, he has been sentenced to be shipped to the American colonies and sold into slavery for a period of seven years. I am writing the book now, and he is not enjoying the experience.  Freedom calls, but an iron collar round his neck is not easy to get off. And where is his sister?  I’m not one of those writers who always knows the endings.  So, I’m working as fast as I can because I too want to know what happens.

About the Author

Avi is the author of many books for young readers including Catch You Later, Traitor, the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and the Newbery Honor books The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He lives in Colorado. For more information, visit www.avi-writer.com.

Happy Book Birthday to Patricia Bailey and The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donavan

There are a few great joys in the writing world and a book birthday is certainly one of them. But I have found more and more that one of the most enduring joys of working in children’s books is seeing someone who just a few years ago was tentatively emb
arking on the process of writing a whole novel. Someone who is coming to their very first writers retreat. Someone who has work that they are ready to share with a mentor or a critique group for the very first time. And then to see their work grow over time and their connections in the book world develop and then one day they have a newly published book. And so I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce our newest Mixed Up File member Patricia Baily and her debut novel The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan. I met Trish in 2011 at the Summer Fishtrap, a writers workshop held in the Wallowa mountains on the home ground of Chief Joseph’s band of the Nez Perse (Nimiipuu). Trish took my workshop and had a great story that she had worked really hard on. We’ve met several times at writer’s conferences over the last several years and every time Trish had grown as a
writer and gained confidence from her network of fellow writers. I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce her to our MUF readers.

First things first. I think I saw some scenes from Kit Donavan in 2012, but how long have you been working on it altogether?
It seems like forever – but so much of that time was learning about the town of Goldfield and what was happening there during its boom years. I really started working in earnest on the writing in 2011 – when I received a Fishtrap Fellowship. So, I guess I’d say it’s taken six years to go from words on paper to a novel on a bookstore shelf.

The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan is set in a real mining boomtown. Can you tell us why you picked that time period and a little bit about your research process?

I’ve always loved stories set in the Old West. And I’ve always been particularly interested in the Turn of the Century. There was such a clash of old and new – stage coaches and automobiles, outhouses and electricity. When I came across the story of Goldfield, Nevada – with all its drama and contrast – I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to grow up in that environment. Lucky for me, a fair number of famous people passed through there, so the town was mentioned in letters and biographies that were easy to access. There’s also a thriving historical society in Goldfield and museums just down the road in Tonopah. I was able to go through old newspapers at the Central Nevada Museum and tour an old mine at the Tonopah Mining Park. I even got a private tour of Goldfield with one of the members of their Historical Society.

Historical societies are such a great resource for writers. I’ve been grateful for them many times over the years. I always struggle with finding the right names for my characters, and Kit is perfect. Is there a story or special meaning behind the names?
For some reason character names come to me pretty easily – which is good because I don’t start writing until I have one. Once I get an idea for the name that seems right, I look it up on one of those online name meaning sites to see if it fits the notes I’ve made about the character’s personality. In Kit’s case, it all meshed right away. There just wasn’t anything else to call her. She was Kit from the beginning – and it still feels completely right.

Kit is a spunky character – and one who is a little more outspoken than most girls at that time, which I love. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to develop Kit?
Kit was an interesting mix of spunky and sorry right from the beginning. She spoke her mind quickly – and often regretted it when faced with the consequences of her quick-temper. The trick with Kit was to address both sides of her personality – the part of her who wanted to be good and fit in and make friends and the part that just couldn’t stay quiet when faced with injustice – big and small. One of the things she has to reckon with is deciding if speaking her mind is worth the cost. She also knows that there are expectations for how a lady is to behave. One thing that I wanted to do was have Kit notice all the different ways women could be in the world. That – at least here in the gold camp – all women weren’t necessarily defined by the traditional lady-like life she’d been dreading.

You live in a small town with fewer resources and a smaller local writing network. How have you managed to forge a writing community there?

I think most of my local writing community has been a direct result of our county library system. For years, I’ve taken every writing-related class they’ve offered – no matter the genre. That’s how I met other people who were serious about writing. It’s taken a long time, and lots of meet ups at the local coffee shop, but I’ve managed to find a few other writers to meet with regularly. Sometimes we just talk about what we’re working on. Sometimes we critique pages or share a resource. Sometimes we talk about what we’re struggling with. I love my online writing friends, but it’s a real treat to have people you can talk to face-to-face.

I’d never make it without my critque partners either and three cheers for the local library! Next time you’re at your local library ask them to get a copy of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan, a wild west adventure story with plenty of heart.

 

Interview with Celeste Lim, author of The Crystal Ribbon

In a story set in medieval China, Celeste Lim brings a young girl of exceptional heart together with the animal spirits of ancient myth to overcome a dark fate. Wed at age eleven to a three-year-old,  Jing’s life seems like a dismal sentence, and yet it is full of surprise and adventure.  In the interest of full disclosure, Celeste began weaving her tale while in my class at Manhattanville College’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. From the first evening she read aloud, her writing voice captivated  me and I felt certain that her tale was destined for publication. And now that it’s here, I get to interview her!

Would you tell us a little about your writing background and early writing experience?

Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to a myriad of languages at a young age. We learned Bahasa Malaysia, our national language, in class; English was a compulsory subject as well because we were colonized by the British; and I went to a Chinese school because of my heritage. Therefore, what I has been exposed to growing up taught me that English books were written for and about Western people; Chinese books were written for and about Chinese people; Malay books for and about Malay people, and so on. So naturally, when I attempted to write my first English novel at age seventeen, I wrote a story about three fair-skinned, red-haired sisters who live in New York City, a place I’d only ever read about in books and saw on TV. That manuscript has been sitting in a hidden folder on my computer ever since.

How did you come to write Jing’s story?

Your first class focused on writing from our unique reservoir of seminal experience. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to me to realize that I was actually allowed to write about what I knew in a language that was supposedly foreign to my culture. That was a huge turning point in my writing journey and was also how Jing’s story was conceived.

The Crystal Ribbon’s magical creatures or jing, are important elements in the story. Could you explain more about them here? Did the jing characters spark your imaginyation as a child? Do you have a favorite jing?

This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Just like beings such as fairies and mermaids, jing are mythical creatures that sprung from the lips of storytellers, and since then have consistently appeared in ancient and medieval Chinese literature. The existence of jing came from the Taoist idea that through enough spiritual training, anything is able to attain a higher level of existence. Jing are non-human creatures that, after a hundred years of spiritual training, have attained the ability to speak, and a human level of consciousness and intelligence.

Because these ideas are so much a part of our mainstream religion, as a child I took them for granted, being more intrigued by gnomes and fairies. But now I do actually have a favorite jing–the huli jing, or fox jing! Other than being a very handsome creature, it feels like a very complex character, having the potential to be equal parts good and evil, which is why I chose it to be my character Jing’s unlikely friend.

Although Jing’s world contains magical helpmates, she couldn’t escape being sold into marriage at age eleven. At the hands of her three-year-old husband’s family, she suffers many cruelties. Were these scenes difficult to write? Explain how you approached them.

The novel actually started out as a third-person narrative. As a person living almost a thousand years later, I found it difficult to write in a way that helped me connect intimately to those experiences. But when my editor suggested I switch to first person, the barrier seemed to disappear. First person is not my writing strength, but in this point of view, I was forced to experience everything as Jing.  I found that the words in these scenes came easier and sounded more authentic, raw, and immediate.

Although The Crystal Ribbon is set in medieval China, Jing could be a role model for girls today. What qualities do you think serve her best?

I’ll name two of the traits that I admire in Jing, resilience and introspection. I believe her resilience stems from hope, something that she carefully preserved and did not let her hardships extinguish. Initially, her hope might be that things will eventually change for the better on their own, but I think it is her introspection, her constant self-examination, that allowed Jing to discover the strength to change the course of her life.

Having a first book published can be both thrilling and daunting. Since this is your first experience with having a book published, what surprised you about the process?

It was surprisingly less stressful than I anticipated! I am admittedly a bit of a Hermione Granger when it comes to things I’m unfamiliar with. I remember researching and reading up tons about the publishing process and hearing many anecdotes of bad publishing experiences from fellow authors. But fortunately, I have a good working relationship with my editor. I believe that is a huge reason why I feel safe and reassured in her hands.