Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Giveaway and Author Interview with Debut Author Shannon Wiersbitzky

If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do. Oh, and I love comments. Spurring me on this week is the following quote:

"Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed." ~ Ray Bradbury

For my writer friends, here are a couple of great links to check out:   You might get a chuckle out of these or a groan, and they might just remind you of your Uncle Waldo or neighbor Jimmy Bob.

Now for the real reason for this post. Recently, I reviewed a wonderful book for middle-grade readers called The Summer of Hammers and Angels by Shannon Wiersbitzky. (I’m having trouble linking to Amazon, so clicking on the cover won’t do you any good, but if you click on the title, you will be linked to the Amazon page where you can order the book.) If you missed the review, click HERE and give it a read. It’s a sweet book and you will enjoy it. After I posted the review, I contacted Shannon and asked if she would do an interview with me, and I am ecstatic to say, she agreed. As a writer, I always learn much from these interviews. I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I did.

Having your first novel published must be an incredible thrill. Can you tell us about the journey to this “overnight” success for you?

(Sound of laughter …) Well, like any journey, it wasn’t “overnight”. I’ve been a writer all my life, but didn’t begin writing for children until 2000. Most of my early manuscripts are awful….let’s just say the words I wrote didn’t always improve the value of the paper. But hey, that’s part of the journey. As I wrote I learned…and I’m still learning. When all is said and done, with the pit stops and wrong turns, Hammers took me somewhere between two and three years to “get right”.

What was your inspiration for the book?

There wasn’t one single event or situation that drove me to write The Summer of Hammers and Angels. The heart of the story is a community coming together. When that happens, when you’re a part of that, it feels like anything is possible in the world…I wanted to try and capture that spirit. We need more of that today.

Shannon Wiersbitzky
How did you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?

None of the characters are exact replicas of actual people. Bits of characters were certainly gleaned from real people though. I used to know an old man who sat on his front porch and greeted everyone passing by. I took my mental picture of that man, made him grumpier and misunderstood, and turned him into Old Red.

I met a woman in New York once too. I was on a church youth trip, repairing a building, and she cooked us dinner. The food was amazing, the kind of southern home cooking that feels more like a hug than a meal. When I thanked her she said, “Honey, all I know how to do is cook fried chicken.” That one comment stuck with me and is the core of Miss Martha.

The voice of Delia is as clear and real as any I’ve ever read. I noticed you’ve lived a lot of different places, including the place I consider my real home, Minnesota. How were you able to make the language so consistently southern for Delia and the other characters?

Thanks so much! I’ve lived many places and travel as much as I can. There really wasn’t any trick to channeling that southern voice. As a child, my summer camp was my grandma’s house in West Virginia. I was her shadow. I can slip into southern mode in a snap. When Delia started telling me her story, I listened, and had sense enough to start writing it down.

Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you? Maybe you could talk a little about your writing process.

That is a wonderful compliment. It doesn’t always feel flowing and natural when I’m writing. Sometimes it feels like the words are coming out kicking and screaming. One of the best things about writing though is that it doesn’t have to be right the first time…that is why God invented editing! I have never learned or studied the art of writing. I write by instinct. Sometimes I go to conferences or writing workshops and other writers talk all kinds of fancy technique. It can be intimidating! For any writer out there who feels the same, don’t be discouraged! I don’t create detailed outlines. I do keep a simple list of ideas for the story and characters, but it is an evolving list, it certainly isn’t fully baked when I start to write. One bit of actual real-writer-technique I learned this year that I do find useful is storyboarding. When I’m struggling with a chapter, I’ve found that storyboarding can really help. Carolyn Coman describes storyboarding really well in her book, Writing Stories. 

Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners? If so, in what ways do you find it helpful?

I have a wonderful critique group that I’ve been working with for ten years now. I’ve also been to several of the Highlights workshops. I’m a working mom….writing is what I do in my spare time…so the focused days at Highlights are a gift. There is magic in those cabins! (Or maybe the magic is Marsha’s cooking?!) The writers I’ve met there have been wonderful. Having a week with people who truly value writing and the creative process fills up my battery and keeps me motivated long after I’ve gone. In writing it is easy to doubt that what you’re writing has value…you need to find folks to cheer you on.

You worked with über editor Stephen Roxburgh, just a dream for many of us. How was that experience for you?

First, I think Stephen would love being described as an über editor! He truly is brilliant. He knows what works in a story. Period. He’s worked with so many amazing writers…I’m humbled to be on the list. I’d send Stephen any story. I trust him implicitly. It does get a bit annoying that he is right all the time though…

But I know you want more about the day-to-day experience, so here you go. Stephen isn’t the coddling type. He is tough and to the point and he pushed me to be better….which meant I really had to work. His favorite notation is a big question mark. That’s it….just a question mark. It really meant, “OMG…seriously, this is the best you can do here?” At least that is what I heard him say in each of those damn question marks.

What has been most thrilling for you since your novel debuted?

A young reader posted a review on Amazon that brought tears to my eyes. She wrote: 
For those who give, it is a motivator to do more.
For those in need, it is a message of hope, faith, and courage.

When I read that I knew she had really connected to the heart of the book. If this book inspires any young person to go and help others…what a joy that would be.

What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published?  

I certainly don’t have all the answers but here are a few thoughts…..
Work on a story that inspires you. Persevere. Write regularly. Find people who will give you honest feedback, folks that will write those stupid question marks all over your manuscript. Be open to learning. Be open to criticism. Be open to scrapping words and starting over. Be patient. But whatever you do…keep writing!

Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts.

I have a copy of The Summer of Hammers and Angels to offer to one of you reading this. If you leave a comment sometime before my next post (probably next Tuesday) and you live somewhere in the U.S., I will put your name in a hat from which my completely unbiased six-year-old granddaughter will choose one name, and the winner will receive a copy of this wonderful book. I know some of my blogging friends, more technically adept than I, have magical computer randomizers to draw names, but you will just have to trust my granddaughter and me to do this right.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Little Gift and a Review of Chris Crutcher's Autobiography

If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do. And please leave a comment. I love to hear from you.

First of all, I have a little gift for the writers out there. I ran across this article quite a while ago, but forgot to include it until today. If you struggle with revision, as I do, and don’t have as much patience as you might, like me, you will get a lot from this wonderful article from an issue of The Writer magazine:

Secondly, I love to read and also love to share what I read by way of reviews. I read a book yesterday that blew me away, and I want to share it with you.

I made friends with Chris Crutcher on Facebook recently. Okay. “Made Friends” might be an overstatement, but I like the way it sounds. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I am a HUGE fan of his writing. Check some earlier writings HERE and HERE. I’ve read many of his books, some more than once. Anyway, I took a chance and asked if he would be willing to do an email interview for my blog. He said yes. YAY! Keep an eye open for that upcoming interview. It should be here in a couple of weeks. Anyway, in preparing my questions, I took a look at his page on Amazon and discovered there are a few books of his I haven’t read, one of which is an autobiography. I figured I’d better read that before I wrote my questions, so spent yesterday with the book. It is called King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography. I knew Crutcher had a great sense of humor. You can’t read his books without realizing that, but I had no idea just how flat-out funny he is. Clearly, he could do stand-up comedy, and, if he ever wants a career change, I’d recommend it.

I am just the same age as Crutcher, and we graduated high school the same year. Maybe that’s why I just couldn’t put this fabulous book down. I really related to it. In July, I reviewed a book here called Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt that I LOVED! It was set in the sixties, the most seminal time of my formative years. It was funny and smart and heartbreakingly real. This book had much the same effect on me for the same reasons. Crutcher grew up with an All-American kind of childhood – in a small town with an older brother, a younger sister, a dad who was around and had lots of rules, and a mother who quietly drank herself into a stupor every night. Okay, it wasn’t Leave it to Beaver, or maybe it was and we never got to hang around long enough to watch Mrs. Cleaver fall off her 3-inch heels and sob into her useless, frilly, little apron. But honestly, Crutcher wasn’t much more than a degree off norm, if that. And his memory of his childhood seemed selective only to the point of finding the absolutely most drop-dead humor in every bit of it.

Many, many times, I found myself laughing so hard I had to stop reading for several minutes to calm myself down enough to wipe away the tears and get my eyes to focus enough to go on. I read several passages to my husband, but couldn’t get through them without breaking down again. When I finally did get through them, he was laughing has hard as I was. (Seriously. NOT kidding or exaggerating.) I have so many Post-It arrows in the book, I nearly ran out.

“There are plenty of wanna-do-something-neat? stories, each more embarrassing than the last, but my brother’s real coup had to be the time he shot me in the head with a BB gun and didn’t spend one second behind bars for it.”

Crutcher’s brother, John, could always convince little brother of the most outrageous things with that wonderful opening – “Wanna do something neat?” Everyone who has older siblings can relate to that. (In thinking back on the book, Crutcher’s younger sister was nearly non-existent in the book. I suspect he had to pay her off long ago so she wouldn’t write her own book. Hmmm. Maybe that’s where the real story lies.)

“Let it never be said that Chris Crutcher does not listen. My coach’s last words before I stepped onto the court were ‘Don’t embarrass yourself.’ That isn’t always easy.”

Well, you KNOW this isn’t going to end well. AND, you can probably relate to it. I know I could. I could probably put thirty or forty such openings in here, but you get the idea. Crutcher knows how to set up, load up, and knock it out of the park, even though his childhood stories belie any athletic skills. He sure has the understanding of sport, which you will know if you read his books. And if you read this book, as I hope you will, you will find out there is great humor, but there is also great humility and heartbreak in this fine piece of writing.

I hope you will A) get hold of this fabulous book and enjoy it as much as I did, and B) keep an eye on the blog for his interview. I’d bet my lunch money it won’t be boring.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Interview with Author Mary McGarry Morris

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Mary McGarry Morris
A while back, I posted a review of the book The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris. If you missed it, you can see it by clicking HERE. I contacted her after that post and asked if she would be kind enough to share her thoughts through an email interview. She was generous with her time and answered a long list of questions. I'm excited to share that interview with you today. Those of us who are readers will enjoy learning more about her wonderful books. Those of us who are writers will learn a great deal about the art and craft of writing from her answers.

The Lost Mother is set in the deepest part of the Great Depression. What influenced you to choose that setting?

The Great Depression was such a long, harrowing period in our country’s history and psyche that its effects are still felt today.  I grew up hearing my parents’ and relatives’ stories of their own hardships and the pain they saw around them.  So, even though I hadn’t actually lived through any of it, I felt an almost visceral connection to their experiences.  When I began to write “The Lost Mother,” I had a keen sense about that time and place.

The book has great relevance in today’s world, perhaps even more than when it was published a few years ago. Is there a personal connection for you? Did you write The Lost Mother as a message book or did you simply have a story to tell?

“The Lost Mother” was a story that had been gestating in me forever.  My maternal grandmother left her home and family when my mother was only four years old.  My mother felt that loss and abandonment all her life.  She always wondered how a mother could walk away forever from her children.  It was such a deeply painful question that seemed to have no logical answers but the kind of haunting question a writer can’t let go of.  Writing “The Lost Mother” was my fictional attempt to quarry through the obdurate unknown to the truth, or at least the common enough truths of human frailty, determination, and enduring love.     

The Lost MotherThe book is very real to me. I certainly relate to it from stories my parents shared of that time, and some things were very hard for me to read because they were much like the hard times my parents suffered. Can you talk a little about the research process for The Lost Mother?

I read many great books about this period, but my most important research came from talking to people who had lived through it.  First hand accounts collected during that time by the WPA Writers Project were another vital resource for understanding both the widespread deprivation as well as the often guilty success of those few who still had jobs and could feed, house, and clothe their families.

How do you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?

If some of my characters seem to resemble real people, it probably comes from always asking why. Digging deeply enough into a story reveals the characters’ motivations and from there comes a better understanding of the whole person.  And much of what I discover about a character may never end up in the story.

Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?

When I begin a story I need to have some idea, some sense where I’m headed.  I may think I know the ending, but it’s usually not what I expected.  I have a great reverence for the ancient art of story-telling.  In many ways a story is an almost living thing, an organic process of discovery that constantly surprises with all its twists and turns, false starts, and wonderful moments of revelation.  And that’s what I mean about needing to know and always asking why.  The layers get peeled away to the steady heartbeat of why, why, why

Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners? Maybe you could talk a little about your writing process.

I’m not part of a writing group.  When I write I need quiet, though with much of my family nearby I’m used to interruptions.  I try to be at my desk by 9 a.m. and then write for as long as I can.  I’m lucky to have a large room as my “writing space.”  When I first saw this house 35 years ago it was the study that sold me on it.  Finally, a room of my own, which seemed to validate what was then an often insecure pursuit.

As writers, we all hear so much about the editing process. You had a long relationship with Penguin publishing, but your last two books are with Random House. Do you find a difference in working with the editors from two different houses? Are there philosophical differences between publishing houses that are apparent to you as an author? How does that affect your work?

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with two of the best editors in publishing, Kathryn Court at Penguin and John Glusman at Crown (now at Norton.)  I’m sure there are philosophical differences between publishing houses, but I’m unaware of them.  It’s not a world I move in beyond my own work.  Publishing is a strange business, especially in these times, and no one seems to know where it’s all heading.  Just a few years ago death knolls were tolling for independent bookstores, but now it’s the chains that are foundering.  If sales of electronic books ever overtake sales of bound books it will be interesting to see if the obvious savings to publishers (paper, printing, shipping, warehousing) will be in any way passed on to writers.  Or to readers.

Songs in Ordinary Time (Oprah's Book Club)A Dangerous WomanSomething many of us aspiring writers dream of is having our books turned into blockbuster films. Two of your books, A Dangerous Woman and Songs in Ordinary Time, were made into films. How was that for you? Did you have much input on the screenplays or casting?

I had no real input turning “A Dangerous Woman” and “Songs In Ordinary Time” into films.  Wish I had, but it’s a very different process and I understand that. 

You have had books in print for over twenty years. Do you think it’s much more difficult for writers to be published today than when you started? How do you think things have changed for emerging writers over those years? What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published? 

It may be more difficult for new writers to get published today just because there are so many more people writing books now.  But today’s new writers also have the advantage of self-publishing, which is a great way to get one’s work to probably more readers than some publishing houses can reach.  My best advice for emerging writers is born of my own experience: confidence in your work and persistence, persistence, persistence. 

Light from a Distant Star: A NovelYour latest book, Light From a Distant Star, will be out in September. It looks wonderful and I can’t wait to read it. I’ll be setting aside some time next month for that. From the synopsis on your website, it looks like it has a very young protagonist, as did The Lost Mother.  And yet, your books all have very adult themes and are marketed to adults. Does the young adult market hold any interest to you? 

“Light From A Distant Star” was written for an adult reader.  But I’m pretty sure there’s a young adult reader in all of us no matter how far we are from our own childhood.  Everyone remembers what it felt like to be overlooked or disrespected or, worse, not believed because you were only a child.  It can be a frightening experience, especially when you’re convinced you’re the only one who knows the truth.  And in “Light From A Distant Star” that is Nellie Peck’s dilemma, a frustration we’ve all felt as powerless children. “Light From A Distant Star” may well find a young adult audience just as “The Lost Mother” has.  “The Lost Mother” is read in many high school English classes as well as  courses that blend history and literature. 

Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts.