Category Archives: Interviews

Author Interview & Giveaway: Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home

Amy Timberlake photo_credit MJ Alexander

One Came Home coverThere’s Amy! Doesn’t that picture make you want to go do some snow angels? I’m so happy to be welcoming Amy Timberlake to Shelf Elf to talk about the writing life, and her latest book, One Came Home. 

Amy grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin. She has an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she’s also taught writing. She’s worked as a book reviewer, a book event coordinator, and as a children’s bookseller. Her previous books include That Girl Lucy Moon and The Dirty Cowboy. The Dirty Cowboy was illustrated by Adam Rex and won SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award. That Girl Lucy Moon was chosen as a Book Sense Pick, a NYPL’s “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing,” a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2007, an Amelia Bloomer Book, and the winner of the Friends of American Writers Literary Award. Amy Timberlake lives with her husband in Chicago.

If you haven’t read One Came Home, you really must. Everyone who is anyone is giving it stars all over the place. Like Kirkus, and School Library Journal, and The Horn Book. Wow, right? It’s the kind of story that will grab you and not let go, with strong, lean writing, plus a main character with enough sass, gumption, and heart to make you want to harness up something and go searching for an adventure of your own. I loved it.

Welcome Amy!

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

First thing that popped in my mind? Oprah. Isn’t that hilarious? It’s a cliché, but Oprah inspired me, like she’s inspired millions of others. Anyway, back in the 90s, Oprah authored a book with Bob Greene, the exercise guy. (Was it Make the Connection? I’m not sure of the title.) I probably read it to get myself exercising, but what stuck was this: In her introduction, Oprah wrote: “Just do it.” Right then, something clicked—not about exercising (I wish) but about writing. At that moment I knew I was never going to have enough time or inspiration for writing. I realized that if I wanted to be a writer—and I would have told you I desperately wanted to be a writer—I was going to have to “just do it.” That’s when I started scheduling my writing time and being disciplined about it. I learned then that you can make time for anything—you just have to decide that what you’re doing is worth being a priority. Yes, it means making hard choices (and possibly being your parents’ worst nightmare). In my case it meant taking jobs that didn’t require work after hours, and turning down promotions so I’d have more time to write.

By the way, there’s good news too! Through the discipline I did find the time, and experienced all sorts of inspiration. So all the stuff I fantasized about “a writing life” came about, but through established writing habit.

Other things? Every writing residency I’ve done has been helpful in teaching me how to live without the distractions of daily life (extremely helpful). I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. (My anxieties are a lot like hers, but don’t tell anyone.) And when I’m writing, I like to have a door to shut out the world.

Is that five? I hope that’s five. I should have warned you that I’m extremely long-winded…

What are some things – other than imagining great stories and writing them down – that would make it onto your list of favourite things to do?

I’ve got lots of favorite things I like to do! I love reading novels. I’m way into cooking and farmer’s markets. I’m also a big walker and am exploring living without a car (we have one, but I try to use it as little as possible). And I’m re-discovering photography, which was something I loved as a kid. I just got my first DSLR and I gotta say that learning all these buttons, dials, knobs, menus and terms is rough, but I’m committed. Plus, photography goes well with long walks, so it’s a total win-win.

What did ONE CAME HOME teach you about writing?

I learned that there’s a way to do historical fiction that’s like writing science fiction. The birds in ONE CAME HOME are unbelievable—just crazy. There were days I was certain I was describing some alternative universe, but this world happened in 1871 in Wisconsin. You have got to be kidding me! Still, it did. Wow. Continue reading


Author Interview: Joanne Rocklin

I’m delighted to be hosting Joanne Rocklin, author of The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, for an interview today. You can read my review of the book here. Joanne is also the author of another middle grade novel that is sure to knock your socks off, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street (loved it!). Joanne is here to chat about writing, cats, and telling whoppers. There’s a giveaway on offer as well. Read to the end of the interview to find out the details. Welcome Joanne!

1) If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

My mother times 5. She died thirteen years ago, surrounded by all of us, as well as the big pile of picture books she was donating to her beloved class of Kindergarteners. She read to me very, very early, introduced me to the library, Louisa May Alcott, Anne of Green Gables, Little House in the Big Woods, Beverly Cleary, and hundreds of other authors and stories. She gave me the freedom to read and scribble diary entries and my own poems and stories whenever I wanted, which meant turning a blind eye to the easy-to-spot flashlight under the covers. She marched to my school in a huff when a third grade teacher criticized my poems for “poor handwriting”. She saved every scrap of paper with anything on it written by me. With fierce support like that, what else could I grow up to be, but a children’s author!

And when I was an adult, an unpublished author, she was the one who told me about the wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

I tried to recreate the joy of those bookish moments with my own two sons, I continue doing so with my grandchildren, and every day of my life I speak to that long-ago reading child, deep inside of me. And it’s all because of her.

Joanne’s mother reading to Joanne’s sons. (ca. 1978)

2) What part of this novel are you most proud of?

I could say Oona’s voice, which made me laugh and feel strongly as I was “channeling” it, or her silly stories, which express so much for my character and make the book a bit different. But these elements came easily to me, in this particular novel. I think what I’m most proud of is the structure, or plot (or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, when everything comes together to form a cohesive whole). For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel. Oona accepts life’s changes, as well as death as a part of life, and Zook helps her do all that. I wasn’t sure, when I began, how Zook would help her, but I knew he would.

Now that I ponder your question, “proud” isn’t the right word. “Grateful” is a better word. Frankly, I don’t know how that “coming together” happened. And it only happened after many, many drafts. So I guess I’m most proud of keeping my bottom in my chair, until it did.

3) What is something you learned through writing this novel (about writing, about the world, about cats…)?

About writing:
It’s the details that make writing come alive, and I hang on to them for dear life, because it’s the details that also eventually give me insight into my characters, plot and theme, yes, just like puzzle pieces fitting together. I don’t know why that happens, but I guess the writing brain struggles to make sense of everything, to make everything connect. See my answer to #8 for how this is evident in THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK.

About cats, kids, and love
The love that people have for their pets is not a “lesser” love. Most of us only discover this when we become pet owners. Pets become members of a family. I knew this on some level, of course, but writing the novel made me know it consciously. Oona finally realizes this, too, as she ponders the meaning of “true” love. I’ve always felt that when a child and a pet grow up together, that child is helped to be more empathic, responsible, emotionally responsive, and imaginative, as she projects her feelings and words onto a loved and loving pet, who needs her. Middle graders understand that a pet’s physical health can fail, indeed, that a pet will die. I’m not sure, but it seems to me that we worry more about the reaction by children in primary grades. Are more picture books than novels published on this topic? I began to wonder whether middle graders grieve harder, because of their true understanding of life’s vicissitudes, and death’s finality. Continue reading

Ashes, Ashes – Plague & Pestilence Blog Tour

I’m very happy to be hosting Jo Treggiari on the Shelf today for a stop on her whirlwind “Plague and Pestilence” Blog Tour in celebration of her fab new dystopian YA novel, Ashes, Ashes.

Welcome Jo!

What was it like taking yourself to such a dark place every time you sat down to write? Did you have a happy-making antidote to all that post-apocalyptic intensity?

It was hard. I submerge myself so deeply into the story when I’m writing it, that it affects my real life. I almost have panic attacks. My antidotes are long walks with my husband, play time with my kids who always make me laugh, and lots of chocolate and red wine.

Why do you think this genre is so appealing to so many readers?

I actually was surprised when the whole dystopian/post apocalyptic genre exploded. I wrote Ashes, Ashes a couple of years ago and it was still all about sexy vampires at that time. I think that people are always looking ahead, worrying about the future. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction takes those fears and maximizes them, gives us the worst case scenario. Maybe the situations we face don’t seem so bad in comparison. Or maybe we just enjoy fictional disasters on a massive scale.

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

*Books. There are so many that have inspired me. Even the bad ones teach me something about writing. My favorites include A Wizard of Earthsea, The Golden Compass, The Hobbit, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Hunger Games, Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, The Wind Singer by William Nicholson, & The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. But there are many, many more.

*My friends are a huge inspiration. I have the best friends in the world.

*I think a lot about morality, the difficulty of making choices especially when they affect others, bravery, being a good person.

*Travel has been a huge inspiration. I’d love to be involved in global student exchange programs. I think so many problems arise when people don’t have a world-view and aren’t exposed to other cultures.

*It’s a toss-up between art and nature. But they’re sort of the same thing, aren’t they? Mother Nature just does it better.

I used to work at a great bookstore, and one favourite topic of conversation was: “What special and essential skill could you offer if you lived in a post-apocalyptic community?” (Mine was baking cookies, by the way, because we all know there would be chocolate chips after the apocalypse, right?) So, what would be yours?

I trained as a boxer for 5 years and I know how to drop a big man with one punch. Also I know how to skin a rabbit.

What is something you learned through writing this novel (about writing, about the world, about surviving the end of the world…)?

I learned that the most important rule of writing is to get your butt in the chair. There is no secret trick to writing a book. You have to show up and you have to work. And then you have to revise and revise and revise and….

If you had to choose a motto to guide you in your writing journey, what would it be and why?

I used to have a post-it above my desk which said “Trust the little voice”. That’s the voice that whispers to me to keep going when all the louder voices are telling me that I suck and to give up.

Of all the ways the world could end – and I’m sure you’ve spent time imagining many of them – what way frightens you the most?

Nuclear war.

Now that is a cheery way to end an interview! Thanks for being here Jo.

FYI, you can listen to Chapter One of Jo’s novel here, and you can listen to an interview with her here. For the complete schedule of stops on Jo’s tour, click here.

Ashes, Ashes is published by Scholastic.

Guest Post: Uma Krishnaswami

Welcome to Uma Krishnaswami, who’s here with a guest post today for her blog tour in celebration of her book, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. She’s hear to share her thoughts on…

Dreams and Dreaming in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything

“Marjorie Coughlan of PaperTigers wrote: “I have to admit, I did try looking Swapnagiri up on a map and I couldn’t find it. Is Swapnagiri a real place or did you invent it?” The question made me happy, because it meant that the town in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything felt real even though I’d made it up. And that’s the most basic and the most important work of a writer of fiction, to create a dream that the reader can enter into.

In some ways this story is all about the rainbow-colored spaces between reality and dreams. The name of the town, Swapnagiri, translates to Dream Mountain, a point that isn’t lost on our Dini. People seem to come to this place bringing their dreams. Dini has hers, of course, but Dolly too is chasing a dream, and so, it turns out, are several minor characters. Dini’s mom moved the family here in pursuit of her professional dream. The place is practically a vortex that pulls dreamers in. That’s the structural part of dreams in the story, the way they ended up being placed right into the motivations of characters and the events that follow from them. They’re not just an overlay or an afterthought. I don’t think there should be a single story element that’s just tacked on. It should all belong.

There is only one actual dream sequence in the book–the one where Dini’s really exhausted. She dreams she’s chasing after Dolly in the tea garden but she can’t catch up with her. Not a pleasant dream, which makes the point that you can’t always count on your dreams to soothe and comfort.

A single choice of name can have all kinds of domino effects when you write fiction. Pick a word and your mind begins to play with that word, making associations that you don’t realize until suddenly you’re writing them down. A few months after I’d begun working on this story, “Dreamycakes” popped into my mind as the name for the bakery, which had already gone through a couple of drafts just being called “?? Bakery.” As the name settled into place the character of the baker grew, so that his dream began to play a role in the story. It causes the place to be closed at one point when Dini really needs a taste of chocolate. It also causes the baker’s silly and irrational fears. That’s the part I love about writing fiction. Make one word choice and three or four days later it might lead to a larger story choice–a plot turn, a reversal, an action on the part of a character. I love it when I put something down on the page and find myself thinking, Wow, how did that get there? Did I know that all along? Did I dream it without realizing it?”


Finally, if you are interested, there is a giveaway being offered. Here are the goodies:

And here are the details:

A Grand Giveaway! Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore! An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. To enter, send an e-mail to In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you’re under 13, submit a parent’s name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.

Scribbling Women Blog Tour: Marthe Jocelyn

I’m thrilled to be a stop on Day Two of Marthe Jocelyn‘s “Scribbling Women” blog tour. Marthe is celebrating the release of her latest book, Scribbling Women: True Tales from Astonishing Lives, published by Tundra Books.

In Scribbling Women, Marthe introduces readers to eleven tremendous and inspiring women, all of whom happen to be writers. They come from across the world, span centuries, and all had unique motivations for writing. I confess I had heard of only a few of these women before reading this book. Part of what makes this a satisfying and thought-provoking read is that it makes you wonder how many other women there must have been through history who wrote, for themselves, for others, for pleasure and other purposes. Jocelyn’s book is a window into the thoughts of extraordinary women, with such diversity of experience and perspective. And spirit – they’ve all got a lot of spirit. You cannot close this book without feeling overwhelmed by the gutsiness of these women, who prove that writing can be as bold and world-changing an act as almost anything you could think of. Each of the snapshot chapters moves at an engaging clip. Jocelyn includes a lot of research in a short space, and succeeds in making you curious to learn more about each of her subjects.

I think that it is definitely a book more for a reader in her early twenties, or very late teens, than for anyone much younger. The tone is accessible, but the language is sophisticated. I imagine that a particular interest in history would be required for a younger reader to pick it up. I think it would be the perfect high school (or university) graduation gift for a young woman who is considering what she wants to accomplish in her life, and the direction she wants to go next. You can tell that this book was a labour of love for Marthe, and that it was written by a woman who possesses a hugely curious mind, who loves to learn and is excited by the rich, story-filled expanse of history. It could very well make you want to pick up a pen and scribble a little yourself.

I asked Marthe to share her response to a question I had after reading her book: Considering what you’ve learned about your subjects through writing SCRIBBLING WOMEN, and your own experience as a scribbler yourself, describe the perils / rewards / challenges / motivators that many woman writers experience.

Here’s what she had to say:

“Being a writer as well as a woman used to arouse suspicion, dismissal, or even downright danger. There is no need, for instance, to designate a Men’s History Month, because their opinions and statistics dominate the records. Women’s history, until perhaps the last few decades, was traditionally hidden or subversive; quiet accounts locked in drawers or passed along as told stories.

But I have to admit that in my experience – in the comfort of contemporary North America – writing is no longer a perilous or audacious occupation. I do, however, have an aspect of a writer’s life to rant about… There is the commonly held belief that creating books for children is ‘adorable’ or ‘fun’. Writing a book is tremendously challenging, no matter who the audience. But a child reading a book, discovering a fact or a character or a world for the first time, is far more likely to be imprinted and inspired than anyone beyond his or her teen years. How foolish to suggest that such a responsibility is adorable. If we, the kid-writers, can snag a child’s imagination, we will provide the ‘grown-up’ writers with readers for life.”

Don’t you love that? There’s a rant I’ll stand behind. Thank you Marthe!

For more information about Scribbling Women, for the rest of the Scribbling Women blog tour schedule, and for details about how to enter an amazing giveaway where you could win a giant collection of Marthe’s books, visit Talking with Tundra.

Interview with Gennifer Choldenko

It is my pleasure to welcome Gennifer Choldenko, author of many fantastic books, including Al Capone Does My Shirts and her latest, No Passengers Beyond This Point, to Shelf Elf. She’s here for an interview today, to chat about No Passengers and writing and inspiration. Welcome Gennifer!

No Passengers Beyond This Point seems like it had to have been a lot of fun to write, but perhaps fairly tricky to write as well. What was the most enjoyable part about writing this book, and what was the most challenging aspect?

Actually, writing No Passengers was an absolute blast. I loved every minute of it. The challenging part came after the Advanced Reading Copies were printed. I bit my nails to the quick, worried the hair off the dog wondering what people would make of this story.

How did you go about imagining all of the aspects of Falling Bird? What inspired you as you created this unusual world?

This will probably seem obvious, but travel inspired the book. At the time I conceived of the novel, I was getting on a lot of airplanes to promote the Al Capone books. I wrote whole chunks of No Passengers while waiting to touch down in Iowa or Wisconsin, New Jersey, Michigan or New York. I had my pick of jet ways and airport décor, TSA agents and flight gates.

I know it’s a predictable question, but this book really makes a reader wonder where the initial idea came from. So, where did the idea come from? Did it come to you all at once, or take you in directions you hadn’t expected?

For many of my novels, I know exactly what that first idea was and how that seedling of an idea grew into a finished product. Not so with No Passengers. I had written a chapter book about the three siblings: Mouse, Finn and India, but my editor didn’t like it, so I put the chapter book draft away for a few months. When I brought it out again, I loved those characters even more than I had before and I was not about to let them rot in my file cabinet. But I wasn’t sure where to go with the story. The plot wasn’t nearly as interesting as the characters were. Then the thought occurred to me: I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy, why not give it a shot. I decided to try just one chapter to see where it went. And when I looked up two months had passed and I had finished the first draft of No Passengers Beyond This Point.

That ending! Readers aren’t likely to forget that ending. I’m curious to know how readers have responded to the ending. What have you been hearing?

The response I’ve heard about the ending has blown me away. The kids absolutely love it! It is such a thrill to talk to students individually or whole classes full of kids, who have read this book, because they are wired for sound about this story. It has made them think, it has made them question, and it has made them wonder. The ending reminds me of the Madeleine L’Engle quote: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Not every adult can handle this novel, but the kids are having no problem whatsoever.

The way that you get the kids’ voices to be so true, and so differentiated is very impressive. How did you manage it?

With some other novels I’ve written, getting the voice just right has taken years of hard work. With No Passengers, the voices were there inside of me. All I had to do was open a door and let the sound out.

Now I know you’re not supposed to admit who is your favorite, but please tell us, who is your favorite of the siblings, and why?

Probably Mouse. I’m not Mouse, but I was quite an annoying little sister and I did have an invisible friend named Bing. Bing is the only completely “real” part of this book. One of the issues I had had with my editor when she saw that early chapter book I’d written was around the voice. I had told the whole story in Mouse’s voice and she wanted me to write in India’s voice. “India’s boring,” I told her, “Why would I want to write in her voice?” But when I started writing No Passengers it became apparent almost immediately that I could not tell the story if I didn’t write from India’s POV and from Finn’s POV. The moral of this story: Get a good editor and listen to what she says.

What’s the best writing advice you can give?

I find this a difficult question to answer because I think we all need different advice at different points in our writing lives. So here’s my disclaimer: Disregard my advice or anyone else’s if it doesn’t fit. You know more about what you need than anybody else. But if you want advice, here it is: Write for yourself and not for anyone else. Burrow down deep inside until you locate the story only you can tell.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Feel your way through a novel, don’t think your way.” – Norma Fox Mazer

Your story explores the power of home. What do you hope readers will think about this theme as they read your novel?

I work hard to have layers in my story. I personally do not like to read what I call junkfood stories. Stories that suck me in, but give me absolutely nothing for my time. When I’m finished with a novel like that, I get positively peevish. But if I read a book with real depth, the experience of reading it is so rich and fulfilling. While the theme might be summed up in a sentence, the experience of reading that book never can be. That is the kind of book I love and that is the kind of book I try to write. Is No Passengers Beyond This Point about the power of home and family? Absolutely. Do I hope each reader defines this a little differently for himself? You bet. I tried to leave space between the lines for the reader to bring his or her own experience to the story.

What new things did you learn about writing through writing this novel?
I surprised myself with this novel. I didn’t know I could write a story like this one. That made me realize I can set the bar a little higher next time.

Thank you so much for stopping by Shelf Elf to share a bit behind the scenes of your latest novel Gennifer. I’m sure readers will agree with me when I say, “Don’t stop at just one! Keep writing fantasies for us!”

No Passengers Beyond This Point is published by Dial.

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Jennifer Donnelly

It’s the final day of the Winter Blog Blast Tour and it is my pleasure to welcome Jennifer Donnelly, author of A Northern Light and Revolution (and more!), to Shelf Elf.

Welcome Jennifer!

What helps you to keep writing everyday?

Love. I just love to write books. Even when I hate it, I love it. Just thinking about a new story idea – like I am now – makes me want to jump out of my seat and dance around. Because I get to earn my living telling stories, to spend my days with words and paragraphs and characters and books. It took me a long time to get here. A loooooong time. Lots of setbacks and rejections. So it’s never a “have-to” thing for me, it’s a “get-to” thing. I get to write books. And I still can’t quite believe it.

I’m sure that Revolution required a significant amount of research. Could you tell us a little about that process?

Significant is an understatement – boatloads of research would be closer. I read and read and read. I started out with the major, well-known historical surveys – things like Schama’s Citizens and Carlyle’s French Revolution, and then dove into various biographies, accounts, letters, and memoirs, histories of Paris, of the Terror specifically, and on and on. I spent time in museums in Paris and in archives. That was the academic stuff, but I’m also very unacademic in my research. I also spent a huge amount of time at Paris street markets, because there the cheeses still stink and the chickens still have their heads and feet. Certain types of Parisians endure – butchers, shopkeepers, fashionable women – and I sit and watch them, note their expressions and gestures, the way they move, the way they laugh. It all helps me get back to the 18th century.

Music is such an important element of the novel. Did you make a playlist as you wrote, or were there a few pieces of music that you listened to in order to help you get in the right frame of mind for your story?

Music is huge in the novel. For most of the book, it’s the one thing that sustains Andi, the main character. She’s a guitarist, so though she understands and appreciates music as a whole, she’s also specifically interested in the work of people like David Gilmour, Jonny Greenwood, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards. I listened to Pink Floyd and Radiohead nonstop – because Andi does, and also because the complexity, beauty, and darkness of their music suited my subject matter and pulled me through when the going got tough. It was impossible for me to write about the abuse of a child without sinking into a very dark place. Albums like Wish You Were Here, Animals, and Hail to the Thief kept me afloat.

What pieces of music would you name as the most significant in your life?

I don’t know if I can limit it to pieces of music. It’s more about the whole body of work of certain musicians – Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Radiohead. Beethoven. Copland. The Who. The Decemberists. Kate Bush. Natalie Merchant. Bach. Lou Reed. Gillian Welch. To name a few. They acknowledge sorrow, loss, and darkness. They can sit in a room with it all. And I need that. I need some honest, grown-up acknowledgment of the state of things. I can’t bear too much happy horseshit.

You’ve spoken about how part of what inspired the novel was wondering how the idealism of the revolution could have broken down into something so cruel, how the world allows horrors to take place, and that you starting writing Revolution hoping to discover answers. Did you?

Yes, I did. When I started the book, I felt very much as the Duc d’Orléans does, that the world goes on, as stupid and brutal tomorrow as it is today. By the end of it it, I felt more like Andi, who comes to understand that yes, the world does go on this way, but I do not have to go along with it. Andi sees that she can’t change the world, but she can change herself. And maybe that’s enough. Enough to put her own life right. Enough to make a positive impact on a few lives around her. I like to think – to hope – that maybe that idea could become contagious.

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

That’s a tough question…I’m not sure I can cover the whole writing thing here, but these are 5 things that inspired Revolution:

A tiny heart in a glass urn


Shine on You Crazy Diamond

My daughter


Is there a topic or genre or historical period that you have thought you might like to try writing in the future?

Yes to all!

What is the most difficult part of writing for you, and what aspect of writing is the most fulfilling?

It’s all hard for me. All of it. Plot, characters, pacing – you name it, I struggle with it. It’s all fulfilling, too – on the days when the work is going well. The very best is those times when I’m so lost in it, that I totally lose consciousness of myself, and everything around me, and disappear into the story completely.

What part of this novel are you most proud of?

My aim is get the characters off the pages and into people’s minds and hearts and souls. If I’ve done that, I’m happy.

Semi-related question… how much do you love Paris? Of course I mean the Paris of now, not the Paris of Alexandrine’s day? What are your favourite things about Paris? (I am Paris-obsessed, so I like hearing what other Paris-lovers have to say about the city).

Blindly and insanely. The place must have a fault or two, but I surely don’t know of any. I love the street markets with their strawberries and roses. I love the unspeakably funky cheese. The handsome boys in their linen suits at Mariage Freres. The groovy girls in the 11th. Ghosts lingering everywhere. Eye contact. The butter. Poilâne bread. Whiling away an afternoon in the gardens of the Palais Royal. Hearing the beautiful, beautiful language spoken everywhere I go.

Thank you so much Jennifer! Congratulations on another gorgeous read.

Revolution is published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Be sure to stop by the other Friday interviews, wrapping up the WBBT:

Marilyn Singer at Writing and Ruminating
Ted Chiang at Shaken & Stirred
Sofia Quintero at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Maria Snyder at Finding Wonderland

(photo credit: Doug Dundas)

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Kathi Appelt

It is a remarkable treat to be hosting Kathi Appelt today for a Winter Blog Blast Tour interview. Kathi’s latest novel, Keeper, is a magical, beguiling story of loss, love, family, and the sea. Every page is a treat. Read my review here, and then come on back for the interview.

Welcome Kathi!

How would you describe Keeper in one sentence?

Hmm . . . can she answer this in one sentence . . . okay: At ten years old, Keeper, born in the sea, believes that her real mother is a mermaid, and when trouble on the home front arises Keeper is certain that only her mermaid mother can set things aright again, so she makes the perfect plan, including setting out in a small boat all by herself and her Best Dog in search of that mermaid mother.

How’s that for a run-on clause-filled sentence?

It might be better to simply say, Keeper is about a small girl who believes in magic, but she needs a little evidence to make it so.

I think now would be the moment to pause and gaze upon the beautifully dreamy cover:

What helps you to keep writing everyday?

Years ago I made a commitment that I would write every single day, even if it was only for five minutes. I have kept that five-minute promise for well over twenty years. Some days that’s all I write. But the power of the five-minute rule is that once I sit down to write for five minutes, I usually write more. It’s the sitting down that is hard.

Keeper is such a poetic, meandering type of story, with different threads and backstories that stretch in the past. Where did the idea begin? Was it a phrase, a particular scene, or a character that came to you first?

I had an image of a small girl spinning in a wooden bowl. It came from my experience when I was very young. My grandmother had a large wooden salad bowl, and she used to let my sisters and I sit in it and she would spin us around and around on the kitchen floor. And I think it must have been my grandmother (who was a terrific spinner of tales as well as bowls) who suggested that we could sail away in that wooden bowl.

So, that image came to me early on. In fact, the very first scene that I wrote was the one where Keeper remembers being in that bowl in the water, and Meggie Marie is spinning her around and around and laughing.

I also want to say that my other grandmother lived in Galveston, so I spent a lot of time there when I was growing up. She actually owned a dog named BD (which stood for Bird Dog), and she also had a sea gull who crashed into her kitchen window during a storm. My grandmother managed to bandage the gull’s wing, and the bird and BD became chums. So that part of the story is based on a real event.

(Kathi in Galveston – photo credit for this photo & author photo: Ken Appelt)

There are three particularly fine beasts in this book: Captain, Sinbad and B.D. What’s different about creating a complex animal character compared to a human character?

When I write a dog character, I don’t want the dog to be a human-in-dog’s-clothing, even though to a certain extent there’s some of that anyways, rather I want the dog to feel dog-ish on the page. So I spend a lot of time studying dogs, their mannerisms, their sounds, their habits, the foods they eat, the ways they interact with other dogs, all of that.

I also think about the choices that my beasties have. As someone who lives with cats, those same cats only have choices within the confines of my house. They don’t go outside (except when Jazzmyn aka vixen of the cat clan darts out the door while I’m bringing groceries in or something), so the choices they make are contained. Would they run away if they could? Maybe, and that’s a choice to ponder too. With BD, he has a choice everyday. He lives on the beach, but he could easily race away, never to return. Same with Sinbad. Both of them always return to Keeper and Mr. Beauchamp, even though neither one has to. That tells me that those animals, regardless of their needs, return for other reasons besides food and shelter. Maybe they return because they enjoy the company of their humans, and perhaps they even love their humans in their dog and cat ways.

Captain’s choices have more to do with food and BD than with the people in the story.

So, with the animals, there’s always the question of what is pulling them to remain true to their humans (and to each other). Which leads to the next question: do their humans deserve the companionship of these animals? And that allows me to know something about the humans in the story. Are those same humans worthy? Or not?

So, in some ways the animal characters serve as mirrors for the humans. They tend to reflect back the best and worst of the human characters—just as they do in real life.

Which one of the animals in Keeper is your secret favourite? (We know you have one!)

I am crazy about Captain. He just makes me smile. And also, I share his love for watermelon. (Let’s just say that I totally understand his attraction for it). Continue reading

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Charise Mericle Harper

It’s Day Two of the Summer Blog Blast Tour and I’m pleased to welcome Charise Mericle Harper, author of many fun and funny books, including the Just Grace and Fashion Kitty series, to Shelf Elf. Thanks for joining the tour Charise! Let’s get the questions going.

Both Fashion Kitty and Just Grace are girls with a lot of imagination. In their adventures / daily lives they discover that sometimes, solving problems just takes a little imagination. While your books are way too much fun (and far to clever) to be messagey, I think that this is an awesome, empowering message for young readers. What else do you hope kids might learn or take away from these two series?

First off I would always hope that the books are fun to read –a flashlight under the covers kind of experience. Not because you’re embarrassed to be caught with them, but hopefully because you can’t put them down and Mom said to turn the lights out. There, now that we have that covered (bad pun on purpose here), I guess the thing that I think these two series have in common is a confident main character with a strong sense of compassion. Sort of a, “Life’s not easy, but some creative problem solving and an optimistic attitude just might get us through” kind of vibe. And then wrapping the whole empathetic can-do sandwich together a sense that being different is not such a bad thing, and that maybe, just maybe it’s even desirable.

One of the aspects of the Just Grace books that most impresses me is the way that you’ve captured so perfectly the interests, perspectives, challenges and voice of that age group. I feel like you must spend time spying on eight-year olds or hanging out in classrooms so that you can get everything to be so convincing. What are your secrets? How do you create such believable kids?

Well I happen to have a child spy living right in my house at this very minute. My daughter is eight and she has definitely been a big inspiration for the character of Grace. I started the books when she was five, but since then watching and listening to her has given me quite a few new story ideas. I don’t take direct dictation, but having her around definitely helps me get back into that eight-year old mindset. She’s like the diary I never kept. Of course we are both different and our experiences are not the same, but having her in my world helps me jump into that time capsule to visit my past. Things like remembering the monkey bars – the swinging and that great happy feeling of getting to the end without falling, and even though your hands were stinging like crazy you’d just shake them off and turn around and do it all over again.

Fashion Kitty and Grace are blessed with unusual super powers (extreme fashion sense and amazing empathy power). What is your secret super power (but not secret for very much longer)?

Hmm. I don’t know if I have a superpower. Doesn’t a superpower have to be instantly available the second you need it? I don’t think I have that kind of instant action ability, but if I could maybe have an hour or two to get it together, then I think my power might be creative optimism. Not always available in the thick of things, but when the fog clears hopefully my costume’s on and I’m moving forward. One hand pointing the way and the other holding a nice hot cup of coffee (that’s my spinach.)

On your website, you mention that you like to have lots of silly things around you when you’re working. What are your Top 5 Silly Things?

Top five favorite silly things:

1) Little person my daughter made for me out of a stick of gum. So far I haven’t eaten her (the gum not my daughter).

Continue reading

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Malinda Lo

I couldn’t be happier to be part of the crew launching the 2010 Summer Blog Blast Tour today with Malinda Lo, author of the much-praised Cinderella-retelling, Ash. I loved this book. Read my review here, and then come on back. The New York Times called it “somber and lovely,” and Kirkus blessed it with a starred review, saying it is “exquisite and pristine.” It happens to be up for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award. Bottom line? If you haven’t read it yet, you are in for a moody and magical treat. Save it for just the right moment. You will be enchanted and you will become an instant Malinda Lo fan. So aren’t you lucky that she’s right here with us today? Welcome Malinda!

What first interested you about the prospect of retelling such a classic story? What surprised you about the process? What proved to be more challenging or satisfying about re-imagining Cinderella than you had initially anticipated?

The first first thing that interested me in retelling a fairy tale was most likely reading Robin McKinley’s Beauty when I was a kid. That retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” showed me how wonderful a fairy tale retold can be. I wanted to retell “Cinderella” because it has always been my favorite fairy tale, but I had never read a retold version of it that I really enjoyed.

When I started thinking about how I would retell “Cinderella,” I thought it would be relatively simple because, well, I knew what happened! But the most surprising thing about retelling it was the realization that actually, no, I did not know what happened. Figuring out what happened — the plot — turned out to be the most challenging part of writing Ash.

One of the real pleasures for readers of your book, is the mood you create throughout – a little magic, a little darkness, romance and loneliness all mixed together. So here’s a million dollar question: how did you do that? On your website, you share a playlist that you listened to during the writing process. What else did you do to help you get into the right writing space as you worked on Ash?

I wrote Ash on and off over a period of eight years, so I did a lot of different things — I was always chasing that mood! Looking back on it, I think I was experimenting a lot with techniques that would put me in the right writing space. One of the things that definitely did help was music. I own every single Loreena McKennitt album now because listening to her brand of Celtic music was so helpful in getting myself into that Ash place! I also learned that I write better when I can do it for long stretches, as opposed to an hour at a time. So I began to block out four to eight-hour chunks of time to work.

Back then, I was working full-time but had a flexible schedule because I was a self-employed freelance writer. I scheduled every Friday afternoon and evening as Ash writing time, and I did this for a couple of years. It did mean I sacrificed part of my social life, but it was worth it. And honestly, you can do plenty of socializing on Saturday night!

There could be some potential readers out there who as soon as they hear the words “lesbian retelling of Cinderella” think that Ash will live happily ever after in the LGBT section of libraries or bookstores, and that if they aren’t LGBT themselves, this book might not be something they’d be interested in reading. Why do you think this story has broad appeal for teen readers?

You know, I get this question a lot, and I understand why. I would ask it, too. I don’t think that many minority writers would want to be ghettoized by having their books placed only in a special interest section. At the same time, I recognize that having those special interest sections was once a mark of progress. In the not-so-distant past, LGBT books weren’t even carried in most mainstream bookstores, much less in LGBT sections. So while I’m glad that Ash hasn’t been relegated to that dusty corner of the bookstore, at the same time, I feel like it’s a privilege for it to be categorized in the LGBT section. Many of the other books in that section paved the way for my book to be published, and I’m thankful for them.

Of course, I do hope that Ash has broad appeal. I can’t say for certain whether it does or not — I’m no Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer! But I do think that Ash is a love story told in a fairly mainstream voice. Yes, Ash falls in love with another girl, but the gender of her love interest is almost incidental. The book isn’t about being gay or coming out; it’s about falling in love. Continue reading