It is my pleasure to welcome another amazing Class of 2k9 writer to Shelf Elf, Ann Haywood Leal. Ann’s book, Also Known as Harper is released today, and in celebration, her publisher has kindly offered 5 copies to give away to Shelf Elf readers. Yay Henry Holt! So… say something nice to Ann in a comment below, and I will draw 5 lucky winners. You will love this book. Read about how much I loved it here. Welcome to Shelf Elf Ann! Happy Release Day!
Tell us about the moment you learned Harper’s story would be published.
It was definitely surreal. My agent called me and said he’d had some interest, so he thought there might be an auction. I can remember going over the phone conversation in my head, thinking I must not have heard him right! When we got the formal offer from Henry Holt, I think I was actually shaking. Like with the phone conversation, I had to keep reading the e-mail over and over for it to register in my brain. I’d been waiting for this moment since I was about eleven, so I was ecstatic!
Where did this story come from?
For the past few years, I have volunteered at my local soup kitchen. When I agreed to volunteer, I had a completely different picture in my mind than what I actually saw when I got there. I thought I’d see grubby bum-in-the-alley type people. But what I saw were regular old men and women—and lots of families. It was before the economy took such a plunge, and a lot of these people had jobs and were hard workers, but were unable to make enough to make ends meet. The children I come across in my job as an elementary teacher have distinct advantages. But the kids who come into the soup kitchen are so grateful if you save them a special dessert. They are so humble. I guess you could say that Harper’s story came from the feeling I got from being around these children.
Describe your writing process. Are you an outliner, or do you discover your story and your characters as you are writing?
I’m not a big outliner, unless I’m revising—then I take a ton of notes in the margins of my manuscript, and all over my editorial letter. With the first draft I usually start with a character or an unusual setting. Once I have that, the story seems to materialize. When I was first starting to write Also Known as Harper, I was out for a run, and I passed a vacant lot. All that was left of the home was an old, crumbling swimming pool, partially filled with dirty rainwater. My family and I were driving by later that day, and I made my husband stop so I could take a picture of it. I was so intrigued by the look of it, all by itself in the vacant lot, and it ended up in the book.
Lots of people with full-time jobs fantasize about writing a book. You actually did it! How do you manage to balance teaching and writing?
I have written stories pretty much all my life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a story brewing on paper or starting in my head. I think because of that, I’ve always made time to write. I take my journal and/or my laptop pretty much wherever I go. That way, if I end up with an unexpected chunk of time, I can write. I get up pretty early and I try to write for an hour or two before I go to school, then, again right after school. I’ve had to get creative at times. I’ve written on the floor in the hallway outside my daughter’s violin lesson, on an old wooden church pew while I was waiting for her religious education class, and in the car at the soccer field. The other day I was at the hardware store with my husband. We were waiting for some paint to be mixed and I sat down on a lawn furniture display chair and wrote!
Harper’s mother has a book that is a real touchstone for her: To Kill a Mockingbird. She reads it over and over and it helps her to remember what matters most in life. Is there a particular book that holds this kind of meaning for you? (You could choose more than one… if it’s too hard to decide!)
Hmmm…that’s a tough one. I’m staring up at my bookcase, trying to think of something really profound to say! I love To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath a few times. And I can’t really leave out the Bible…
Your main character is a poet. She fills notebooks with poems and dreams of sharing her words on stage. What does writing poetry do for Harper?
I think it would be easy for someone in Harper’s family situation to feel invisible and ignored. Poetry, for Harper, is a way to make her feel heard and worthwhile.
Even though your book addresses the sad and serious issue of homelessness, I found these pages were full of love and hope. I think that most kids are naturally good at finding hope, even in the worst of situations. Your character, Harper Lee, is certainly good at hope. How does she manage it?
Harper’s attitude is one I learned from my dad (who is, by the way, nothing like Harper’s father!). He has always made the best of a difficult situation and seeks out the positive. He looks for the humor and hope in everything and he passed that attitude on to my brothers and me.
What makes you hopeful?
The volunteers at the soup kitchen, my family, President Obama, good books, really great jazz music…and lots of little things. I try to be someone who pays attention and appreciates what is in front of me. I was getting coffee a few months ago and the woman who rang up my order looked familiar. I realized she was one of the former clients of the soup kitchen. She recognized me, too, but neither one of us said anything. I could see how proud she was for me to see her there, working.
There’s a great Discussion Guide available for your book, and I think that Also Known as Harper would be a rich choice for educators to bring into their classrooms. If you could listen into kids’ discussions about your book, what might you hope to overhear?
Connie Rockman did an amazing job with the discussion guide. She is a wonderful storyteller, herself, and she asked some very thought-provoking questions that could get a great discussion going. I would really hope that kids would get that people don’t always have complete control over their situations. Compassion for others comes with knowledge. Being a friend to someone costs absolutely nothing. The homeless can often become invisible, because thinking about another person being in that situation can be so difficult to grasp. I would want kids to talk about how they can help out in their own communities.
What’s next for you?
I am working on another middle-grade novel that will be out in 2010, also with Henry Holt. Esther and her younger sister, Ruth, are dealing with a mother who I’m hoping will bring out a lot of conflicting emotions in the reader!
Thank you so much, Ann.
I enjoyed visiting Shelf Elf!
Readers, don’t forget to leave a comment for Ann below for a chance to win your own copy of her debut!