Saturday, October 08, 2005

Author Update: Peni R. Griffin

Peni R. Griffin is an award-winning children's and YA novelist. Her books include The Ghost Sitter; 11,000 Years Lost; Margo's House; Vikki Vanishes; and Switching Well. She lives in San Antonio. Read An Interview with Peni R. Griffin (note: my site is under redesign; if the link doesn't work, try the search engine).

What's new in your writing life since we last chatted?

Looking at your website, I see that the last time I interviewed for you The Ghost Sitter was still in production under its working title, Sparkler Susie. Since then, it's done spectacularly well for me, winning the William Allen White Award (the first-ever state children's book award and the only one that is presented with cheerleaders and a parade) and having not only a hardback and paperback release, but being picked up by Scholastic BookFair for a shocking amount of money up front. (Ambitious readers should be aware that the amount of money it takes to shock me is much, much less than the amount it takes to shock J.K. Rowling. It wasn't enough to pay off the house, alas).

And then there was 11,000 Years Lost, the Book That Ate My Life. For a large chunk of the time since the last interview, I have been nearly obsessive on the subject of the American Pleistocene, the setting of this time travel story about a modern girl who lives with mammoth hunters. If I have a shot at literary immortality, I think this book is it. My fantasy is that my funeral will be attended by the archaeologists who finally sort out the bizarre and confusing mess of evidence concerning this period, and they will all stand up and say: "I decided to be an archaeologist when I read her book." It took me ten years off and on to do, was researched twice and substantially re-written three times, has lots of lovely backup material (map, family tree, glossary, etc.), and is even a fun read. I've never been prouder of anything in my life.

A short story also came out in Marilyn Singer's Anthology Make Me Over: 11 Stories About Transforming Ourselves (Dutton, 2005). My story is called "Vision Quest" but does not take place in the Pleistocene. I did have to research vultures to write it, though.

Do you have a new/upcoming book(s) to tell us about?

I'm supposed to. Between the cracks of writing 11,000 Years Lost, I wrote two other books, and one (with the working title of Abnormal Street but generally referred to in conversation as "the happy family serial killer story") has received interest from the editor who worked with me on GS and 11,000. Only, she wants me to to a significant revision, and I can't.

Without going into details, 2005 has been the Year from Hell, primarily on the health front. No one's died, thank goodness, but the year's not over yet. By the standards of people who went through two hurricanes, I've had it easy, but compared to my normal life, my family's in a bind. Now that things have settled down, I seem to be taking time to fall apart a bit.

Reading the end of my last interview, about how to act when life smashes you flat, was ironic, because now life has smashed me flat and I can't do what I most loved to do. It's like missing a limb - except, the limb is a chameleon's tail. I know it'll grow back.

Sometimes I even feel growing pains. A couple of weeks ago I woke up from a dream in which I was handed a sequel to 11,000 - written by someone else! It was awful, involving a cave with a time machine and characters from the Pleistocene traveling to 1900 and wearing pink. I woke up with the first paragraphs of a real sequel forming in my head. Only that's not what I'm supposed to be working on and I can't possibly commit to another big research book right now and anyway a hurricane came along and distracted me. (And anyone who thinks I can just use the research from the last one doesn't know me or the state of American paleoarcheology very well.)

If so, could you give us some insight into how this book(s) came to be?

11,000 Years Lost started with the mercenary motive of writing "another Switching Well." SW was always my big seller, because Texas schools picked it up. I didn't want to write a sequel. You should only do that if you have more stories to tell about the people and places and ideas in the first book. If people want the same story again, they’ll read it again. You need to write something that has the elements that made the first story popular and is still all-new.

So I was thinking about writing something that could tempt the schools again, and that would be equally interesting to boys and to girls - because face it, Switching Well is kind of a girly story and half the population of most schools, including many of the girls, aren’t girly at all. So I figured the schools were tempted by the local history angle, and there’s lots of history to choose from in Texas, so I started paying attention, in the course of my regular reading, to time periods that could excite me enough to write about them. That turned out to be the Pleistocene. Oh, boy, do I love the Pleistocene!

All I can remember about how Abnormal Street started is the mental image of a girl coming downstairs in a strange house and finding a guy raiding the refrigerator. That was the image; the stuff I knew about the image was that the girl had just last night come to stay with her cousins to escape from the serial killer who murdered her mom, and the guy at the refrigerator has been thrown out of his house in the middle of the night for being gay and has let himself into his friend's house because it's where everyone in trouble winds up.

I don't know whether this was part of a dream or not; the combination of image and complex backstory instantly understood is certainly dreamlike. The concepts I've been chasing since then are that Brownie (the girl) wants to live in a Lenora Mattingly Weber book but has stumbled into a YA thriller. Her cousins, meanwhile, are Texas hippies thrown into a 70's problem novel mileu. Also meanwhile, the killer is indeed after Brownie, not because he's afraid she saw him and will testify but because he's sure she saw him and allowed him to kill her mother, so he wants to recruit her to be his sidekick murderer.

You see why I'm having a little trouble whipping this plot into shape. Getting all these elements to work and play well together to become the dazzling thematic masterpiece inside my head is a bugger even when I'm on my game.

How about children's/YA books that you've read lately? What are your favorites and why?

I've gone on two Diana Wynne Jones binges this year. She's so masterly, and no matter how savagely she treats her characters it all comes out right in the end. Just watching a pro like her riding a complex plot like a cowboy riding a pegasus is heartening.

My big novelists in the recent past have been Elaine Marie Alphin (whose Simon Says depicts my interior universe with such fearsome accuracy those who love me can't stand to read it) and Neal Shusterman, but they've both been too raw for me this year.

I've done a lot of comfort reading. Ironically, some of my comfort reading is stuff that would have been too controversial to publish when I was the target audience, like David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy, Brent Hartinger's Geography Club and Order of the Poison Oak, Julie Anne Peters' Far From Xanadu - the idyllic post-heterosexist town of Boy Meets Boy is particularly relaxing to be in. I find the fact that these books can be published now reassuring. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books are also cheerful and funny, which is important to me right now.

I'm indulging a taste for historicals (Iain Lawrence, The Wreckers/Smugglers/Buccanneers; Catherine Jinks, the Pagan series; Louis A. Meyer, Jacky Faber - 19th century seafaring adventure; Emily Updale, Montmorency) and fantasy (Mary Hoffman, Stravaganza; M.T. Anderson, Whales on Stilts; the Borderland shared world, and of course all that Jones).

And I find I really love Margaret Peterson Haddix, although (or maybe because) her stories are, at base, paranoid adolescent fantasies.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

Just getting back to doing it is the Big Numero Uno. Once I'm back, I'll revise Abnormal Street and then - I can't see that far ahead.

Cynsational News & Links

How To Make Self-Editing Easy by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon.

An Interview with Rebecca Hogue Wojahn from Ellen Jackson's Secrets of Success column. Rebecca "has recently sold a picture book, Evan Early, to Woodbine House and has recently acquired an agent for her YA mystery novel, A Richness of Martens. For the past two years, Rebecca has sold articles to Highlights for Children, Faces, Cobblestone, and Appleseeds, but she is now focusing on the middle grade and young adult book market."

Friday, October 07, 2005

Author Update: Anna Myers

Anna Myers is an award winning children's and young adult novelist. Her books include: Stolen by the Sea (Walker, 2001); When the Bough Breaks (Walker, 2000); and Fire in the Hills (Walker, 1996). She lives in Oklahoma. We last visited with Anna in July 2002; see An Interview with Children's/YA Book Author Anna Myers (note: my site is under redesign, so if this link doesn't work, try the sidebar or search engine).

What's new in your writing life since we last chatted?

After doing fourteen books of historical fiction for young people, I am working on a contemporary story about an eighth grade girl who goes to a new school and is mistaken for the interim principal. For two days she gets to run the school. As yet, there is no title.

Do you have a new/upcoming book(s) to tell us about?

My book Assassin (Walker, 2005) was just released. It is told in part by John Wilkes Booth and in part by Bella, a fourteen-year-old girl, who works both at the White House and at Ford's Theatre. Everything about Booth, the Lincolns, and the Civil War is historically accurate. Only Bella is made up.

If so, could you give us some insight into how this book(s) came to be?

My editor, Emily Easton of Walker Publishing, suggested I write about the Civil War. My husband, John Calvin, suggested I write about a boy who gets involved with John Wilkes Booth. I liked the idea, but made the character a girl.

How about children's/YA books that you've read lately? What are yourfavorites and why?

Lately, I have been reading adult books because I have been working on one for a while and am determined to finish it this year.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

For a few months, I will be working on the eighth-grade principal story. It is different for me to write humor, and I am finding it difficult. However, I enjoy the stretch.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to WriteFest alumni Sean Petrie and Cathren Page Koehlert, who have been accepted to the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. Congratulations also to Austin writer/illustrator Gene Brenek, who also was recently accepted to the program.

The Purple Crayon blog has been updated for October. Topics include copyright infringement on the Internet, chapter length, and manuscript format issues.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Teddy Award Finalists Announced

The Writer's League of Texas has announced finalists for the Teddy Children's Book Awards for children's/YA writing.

Short Works: Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly by Anne Bustard, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005); and Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears Will Never Be Neighbors by Elaine Scott (Viking, 2004).

Long Works: Close Encounters of a Third World Kind by Jennifer J. Stewart (Holiday House, 2004); Light Years by Tammar Stein (Knopf, 2005); and Upside Down and Backwards/De Cabeza y Al Reves by Diane Gonzales Bertrand, translated by Karina Hernandez (Arte Publico, 2004).

Cynsational Links

Author Kathi Appelt and illustrator Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins, 2005) from cynsations. March 2005. See also A First Lady Who Made A Difference: An Interview with Kathi Appelt by Alice Cary from BookPage.

Author Update: Diane Gonzales Bertrand from cynsations. September 2005. See also Diane Gonzales Bertrand from Children's Literature.

Author Interview: Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005) from cynsations. February 2005.

Free Activity Guide for Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears Will Never Be Neighbors (Viking, 2004) from the Texas Book Festival.

Light Years by Tammar Stein: a review from

Austinites: Support A New Central Library

The City of Austin is considering approval of financing to build a new central library.

Right now, the central library was designed for the needs of a much smaller community. It has, for example, only 40 parking spaces, which are always full. In addition, there is no children's program area, no young adult section, and quite limited seating for young readers. So, a bigger, better library is much needed.

For this to happen, though, the city council needs to hear from interested and supportive citizens. These are ways that Austinites can help:

(1) Fill out an online survey, noting your support for related financing.

(2) Go to a public information hearing and say "we need a new central library." That's all you need to say (although you are welcome to say more). The next two meetings are scheduled for Thursday, October 13 at 7 p.m. at Dove Springs Recreation Center (5801 Ainez Drive) and Monday, October 17 at 7 p.m. at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (4801 La Crosse Avenue).

Thank you for considering this information!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Author Interview: Mark G. Mitchell on Raising La Belle

Raising La Belle by Mark G. Mitchell (Eakin, 2002). From the catalog copy: "Under the mud below twelve feet of water lay La Belle, the prized ship of famous French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle. In 1995 the ship was discovered by the Texas Historical Commission. For the next year, archeologists labored to extract the ship and her amazing cargo. The excavation made headlines worldwide. The Belle was the last hope of escape from Fort St. Louis, a Texas settlement in trouble. When the ship sank, the fort's inhabitants, including pirates, missionaries, and orphans, confronted an unmapped wilderness and [] Karankawa Indians. Raising La Belle interweaves highlights of one of America's most exciting archeological finds with the story of Texas' lost French colony."

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I was asked to do it by Pam Wheat, the education coordinator for the “La Salle Shipwreck Project” of the Texas Historical Commission. The Commission had just finished excavating the Belle. It cost $5 million to bring up the wreck from the bottom of Matagorda Bay, and it was going to cost perhaps another $1 million to preserve the hull and the thousands of artifacts. A good chunk would be paid by the State of Texas. So the Commission was anxious to justify and raise awareness about this ambitious endeavor. Pam thought a children’s book would be a good outreach to the Texas schools.

I should say here that the Belle was not an ordinary sunken ship, but a 17th century shipwreck with bronze cannons and chests and barrels packed with goods -- and a human skeleton curled in the bow. And the Belle had belonged to somebody historically significant, the North America explorer Robert Cavelier, the Sieur de La Salle. The Belle actually was a present given to La Salle by King Louis XIV -- in gratitude for La Salle’s having just claimed the Mississippi River for France.

To make an epic story short, La Salle took the Belle on his next adventure in the New World, as King Louis wanted him to do. She wrecked on the Texas coast in 1686, inside Matagorda Bay, where Austin’s own Colorado River empties.

Pam Wheat saw a nonfiction book that I had written and illustrated about the McDonald Observatory, Seeing Stars, which Eakin Press had just published for middle grades. Seeing Stars follows astronomers around at the observatory in the Davis Mountains north of Big Bend.

Pam asked if I would consider doing a book like Seeing Stars on the archeology of the Belle.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I was brought on board (so to speak) at the end of 1997. Pam Wheat signed on as my consultant editor. To finance my own work, I obtained a cultural arts contract from the City of Austin, and additional funds from the Texas Commission on the Arts.

I made trips to Matagorda Bay and the East Texas forests and the Texas A&M Riverside campus in College Station, where the Belle soaked in water tanks in hundreds of pieces. I read and did interviews and wrote between other writing and illustration assignments. One was illustrating the October 1999 Cobblestone magazine issue devoted to La Salle. The issue included stories on La Salle’s Texas expedition and the Belle excavation. Cobblestone, a children’s magazine about American history is owned by Carus Publishing.)

I turned in the ms. and the illustrations in 2001. The book was edited by a fine editor at Eakin Press, Angela Buckley, as well as Pam Wheat, and published at the end of 2002.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

In the beginning I actually wondered if there actually was enough going on here for a kids’ book. How many people, how many young people, would relate to archeologists and scholars all breathless with excitement about the stuff they’d found on this high-profile salvage operation? That was my question.

So I guess my inspiration for creating this book (to return to your first question) came later, when I read a journal of one of the survivors of this Texas trip of La Salle’s. It was written by Henri Joutel, who was the same age as La Salle. Joutel and La Salle had known each other as children, growing up in Rouen, France. Joutel’s journal recounts how the Belle wrecked on Matagorda Peninsula and La Salle was murdered by one of his own men in the woods near present day Navasota and seven people (of the 189 or so who decamped from the ships) made the trek back to civilization (the log cabins of Montreal, then.) The seven included Joutel, La Salle’s older brother Jean Cavelier and the skipper, Tessier who had run the Belle into the sandbar.

The journal tells of the culture shock and dismay they felt among the Caddo Indians and other tribes, who wound up helping them.

Joutel’s journal puts faces and voices to the men, women and children of La Salle’s base at the bay, Fort Saint Louis. This probably was the first white settlement west of the Mississippi. These settlers depended on the Belle. She was their only remaining ship, before she wrecked, their only hope of escape by sea.

Now I felt like I got the dynamic of the shipwreck subject, a larger meaning than archeologists pulling artifacts out of the sand. The Belle was a relic and a symbol of some of America’s very earliest pioneers. Her story was a wilderness survival drama.

One challenge included this business of allegiance to facts. Children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman said once, “A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has taken an oath to tell the truth.”

I believe that, as a former reporter. I took the oath. Yet I wanted this to be a “living” book. By that I mean a book you can pick up again and reread and feel as if everything and everyone is still alive in it, and get carried away by the story unfolding again.

So between the facts and “the truth” something hard to explain would have to occur. I wanted to impart the story in its fullness without killing it with information and words. And so this became the real job of doing Raising La Belle. As I guess it’s the real job of all writers, of nonfiction and fiction alike.

What kind of reception has the book received?

The book was a featured children’s book at the 2002 Texas Book Festival, and I got to make a slide presentation at the festival. It was a finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Teddy Children’s Book Award. Then it won the Spur Award for best juvenile nonfiction book of 2003. Spur Awards are given each year for “distinguished writing about the American west.” The previous year’s winner in my category was – hey – Russell Freedman, for In the Days of the Vaqueros.

I flew out to Helena, Montana to receive that award from the Western Writers while they were holding their 50th anniversary annual convention.

A children’s writer in Austin, Phil Yates kidded me. “Why are you wining an award for a Western? Shouldn’t you be getting the “Ship in a Bottle” award?

I said, “I’m not sure there is one.”

Then Cynthia Leitich Smith alerted me to a competition – The United States Maritime Literature Award. So I entered and won the U.S. Maritime Literature Award for 2003. That led to City of Austin Mayor Will Wynn proclaiming November 7, 2003 as “Mark Mitchell and Raising La Belle Day.” The book was a city-sponsored arts project, remember. And as if enough wasn’t enough, the Texas Governor commissioned me as an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Yes, Texas claims a navy. So I think this means I can pull rank on editors and art directors, now.

I’ve also been included in programs by the Texas State History Museum in Austin, where the Belle will come to rest with its artifacts in a few years once it’s been chemically preserved.

Cynsational Notes

“Austinite (Mark) Mitchell has done a brilliant job of making a potentially dull subject (an archeological recovery) lively, fascinating and slyly educational.”
-- The Austin American Statesman

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Texas Authors: if you have already entered a book for consideration for the Friends of the Austin Public Library Award for Best Children’s Book and Best Young Adult Book, sponsored by the Texas Institute of Letters, please note that the address for the award chair (Jane Roberts Wood) was originally incorrectly posted to the Web site. It was corrected on Oct. 3. Double check your entry; hit reload to view the updated page.

Congratulations to Libba Bray whose Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005) was named a NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) Book of the Year. October issue offers an emphasis on breaking into teen markets, including an interview with an editor at Girl's Life and a special report on the magazine. See also how to be a columnist, keeping idea seeds ready to plant, tips on selling poetry, how to win magazine jobs with your portfolio, and download an ebook of a collection of past articles. See also an Interview with Violet Nesdoly on Being a Writer of Faith.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Author Interview: Jan Peck on Way Up High In A Tall Green Tree

Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree by Jan Peck, illustrated by Valeria Petrone (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Ages 3-up. See an excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

In Girl Scout camp, I always loved the ballads and chants we sang. I noticed they all had the same elements of a good story: They start with a goal; there are at least three obstacles to overcome; you reach your goal, then the story comes full circle when you return home. In Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree, I start with the goal of climbing to the very top of the tree. The child interacts with nine animals, we reach our goal, and return home with a surprise twist at the end. This primal plot is very effective in storytelling, especially with young children.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

One major event was writing and selling Way Down Deep in the Deep Blue Sea (Simon & Schuster, 2004). I rewrote this 200-word story for two years before Simon & Schuster bought it. This book is about the ocean, which takes place in a boy's mind while he’s taking a bath. This concept of imagination is used in all of my Way Out series. Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree takes place in the rainforest and in the imagination of this girl while climbing in her bunk bed. I have another one due out Spring 2006, Way Far Away on a Wild Safari (Simon & Schuster). And I have other ideas for the series, which I’m busy writing now.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

These are true-to-life science books for the youngest scientists, ages 2 and up. These real animals and their actions are factual. Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree is on the PBS Teacher Resource Recommended Science Book List.

Keeping the rhythm, rhyme, and above all, keeping the facts fun are my biggest challenges. The rhythm and rhyme creates words that are both predictable and easy to read. I ask parents and grandparents to point at the words while they read them. I've had many people tell me their grandchild or child has learned to read these books. Very exciting! Also, I keep in mind what will sell in other countries. These books are simultaneously published by S&S in Japan, Australia, and England. Way Down Deep in the Deep Blue Sea sold in 2005 to another publisher in Korea. So the books have to have universal appeal.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Texas author Debbie Leland whose picture book, The Little Prairie Hen (Wildflower Run), was chosen as an honorable mention in the children's/YA category of the Writer's Digest Self-Published book competition. This same book was the Texas Reading Association Golden Spur Winner last year. Debbie is a model for successfully self-publishing books that can hold their own against the best of those from the big NYC publishers.

Interview with Jan Peck on Writing by Richelle Putnam.

Tasha Tudor from "Tasha Tudor, one of the most beloved illustrators of children's books ever, and an author in her own right, is now 90 years old, living at her comfy Corgi Cottage in Vermont, surrounded by her family, her garden, her crafts and her books..."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Author Update: Alex Sanchez

When we last visited with author Alex Sanchez, he was the debut author of Rainbow Boys (Simon & Schuster, 2001)(read an excerpt). The book was a big hit-- selected as a: Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association; Blue Ribbon Dissent by the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books; Book for the Teen Age by the New York Public Library; and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. See An Interview with YA Author Alex Sanchez. (Note: my site is being redesigned in fall 2005, so if these links don't work, simply check the site guide and/or search engine).

What is new in your writing life since we last chatted?

At the time of our original Rainbow Boys interview, I never imagined that story about friendship, love, and growing up gay would become a series. But after publication of the first book, readers fell in love with the characters and wanted to know more about them. Consequently, in 2003 Rainbow High (Simon & Schuster, 2003) was published.

Now, in 2005, the final book of the trilogy, Rainbow Road (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(read an excerpt), follows the three central characters on a road trip across America. In order to write that story, I drove the trip myself. I sold my home, quit my day job, jumped in the car, and drove 8,000 miles across the U.S., following the journey the boys take in the novel. The trip turned out to be tremendously enlightening.

As I visited schools and colleges, it was rewarding to hear how Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High had inspired readers—teens and adults, gay and straight—to take action in their own lives.

All across America, readers told me the boys in the books had become their role models. Many more expressed gratitude: “It’s nice to know I’m not alone.” “Your book became the peace-saver at my school.” “Thanks for helping me accept myself.” “After reading what gay and lesbian teens go through, I decided to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.” “I told my mom to read your book so she could understand me.”

Although every author wants his or her books to move readers, I was amazed my novels could have such an impact. I’d never thought my writing would help anyone but me. Now I’ve discovered a function of my writing I never predicted: as an agent of social change, able to inspire, empower, and change lives.

I’ve come to accept myself as a writer who not only tells stories, but who does so in a way that helps promote social justice. That my books do this ceaselessly amazes me.

Do you have any other new books to tell us about?

In between Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High, I began receiving emails from 11, 12, and 13 year-old kids telling me about their struggles to come out. In addition, teachers and librarians asked for a story about gay-straight themes for middle-schoolers. In response, I wrote the novel, So Hard To Say (Simon & Schuster, 2004), which won the Lambda Literary Award.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

Since Rainbow Road concludes the Rainbow trilogy, I feel sad to say goodbye to these characters. I began the first book twelve years ago, so I’ve spent a lot of time with them. But even though I’ll miss the characters, I’m excited about moving on to other stories about young people. And my message will continue to be the same: have courage, be true to who you are, and follow your dreams!

Cynsational News & Links

An Interview With Alex Sanchez, author of Rainbow Boys from ALAN Review. Fall 2002.

On Spies and Purple Socks and Such by CCBC director Kathleen T. Horning from The Horn Book, January/February, 2005. "Reading the gay subtext in Harriet The Spy."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Author Interview: J.B. Cheaney on My Friend The Enemy

My Friend The Enemy by J.B. Cheaney (Knopf, 2005). From the catalog copy: "Hating the Japanese was simple before she met Sogoji. Pearl Harbor was bombed on Hazel Anderson’s birthday and she’s been on the lookout for enemies ever since. She scours the skies above Mount Hood with her binoculars, hoping to make some crucial observation, or uncover the hideout of enemy spies. But what she discovers instead is a 15-year-old orphan, hiding out, trying to avoid being sent to an internment camp. Sogoji was born in America. He’s eager to help Hazel with the war effort. Is this lonely boy really the enemy? Hazel must decide what it means to be a true American, and a true friend." Ages 9-up. Read an excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

There were three main factors, I think. The first is our experience living where the book is set, in the Pacific Northwest. For a little over four years we made our home in Vancouver, Washington, just across the river from Portland and sixty miles west of Hood River, where the story of My Friend the Enemy takes place. The mountains, rivers, apple blossoms, and evergreens of the region soaked into my bones with the clear summer sunshine and persistent winter drizzle. I haven't seen quite all of the United States, but the Pacific Northwest is probably the most beutiful part.

The second factor has to do with my son, who at the age of 21 received a job offer to cut silhouettes at Disneyland--in Tokyo. Since Disneyland is an American theme park the management desired about 10% westerners in park personnel. Being footloose at the time my son decided to go for a year, where he learned to speak the language functionally if not fluently and met lots of girls! That was the upside for him; the upside for me was that I got to go and visit for two weeks. That was enough to become fascinated with Japanese culture and character and wonder what makes it tick.

The third factor was 9/11. Within 24 hours of the planes hitting those buildings, most Americans knew we were at war, but we didn't know the nature of that conflict or what would happen next. The most constant comparison was to Pearl Harbor: then as now, we were taken by surprise by an enemy who looked and thought differently from us. What would they do next? What was our response? As my thoughts turned back to that time, the story started taking shape: a Northwestern setting, a Japanese character, a lonely, dreamy girl (a little like myself at that age). And an improbable friendship beset with inner and outer conflict.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I began the manuscript in 2003 while my editor was reviewing another manuscript I'd submitted. That novel, described by me as a "time-travel romance," was also set in the Northwest. I had high hopes for it, but unfortunately my editor just couldn't get enthusiastic about it. When she reluctantly passed on it, I told her about the World War II story I'd finished. That one she liked (whew!) but after careful consideration she had some major changes to suggest (argggh!). The original manuscript was written in third person but she felt the voice and character would come through more clearly in first.

More importantly, she felt the Japanese character, Sogoji, didn't really "work." I'd first conceived him as a grown man, who felt cut off from his community because he was somewhat simple-minded. His childlikeness makes him a match for Hazel, who feels smarter and more capable than Sogoji, but later finds that the man has unsuspected gifts. Without realizing it at first, I'd modeled the story on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and told my editor so. Her reply: "I've never read Huckleberry Finn."

It took a while to wrap my mind around such significant changes, but once into it I had to admit her suggestions were for the best. The manuscript was substantially finished in the summer of 2004, and appeared a year later.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The main challenge was in changing the secondary character so drastically. Sogoji as he now appears is a boy of 15, though he still feels cut off from his community for various reasons. He was a difficult character to bring to life, but that's only to be expected because he's not that comfortable with himself. He's not only an enemy alien in his own country but also in between cultures--not quite American, and not quite Japanese. Hazel, as I mentioned, is somewhat like me and therefore not so much of a challenge to imagine. But her difficulty is in relating to this boy. She can use a friend, and they share some interests and characteristics in common. But he's also profoundly different in outlook and upbringing--showing the thorniness of their relationship proved to be the most difficult aspect of the writing.

Cynsational News & Links

The folks at are giving away ten copies of Rosemary Graham's Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude (and other commandments I have broken)(Viking, 2005). See for details.

A review of My Friend The Enemy from the Asian Review of Books on the Web.

Hot Off The Press from CBC Magazine.

Wendy Mass: Super Non-Fiction Writer for Young People by Sue Reichard from

Attention: Teachers and School Librarians; Bring Oliver To Your School

Is your school a must-see school? Oliver's Must-do List (Boyds Mills, 2005) is a new picture book by Susan Taylor Brown. To celebrate this new book, the author is offering Oliver to come visit your school for free.

"It's a win-win situation," says Brown. "I work a full-time job. I get time off for visits but I am limited to the amount of travel I can do. And some schools just don't have the funds to bring an author into the classroom. I thought this would be a fun way to connect Oliver with the students. I am also open to working with teachers and homeschoolers in any other ways they think we could make this work well for them."

For more information, visit Oliver's blog.

As a special incentive to cynsations readers, Susan is offering a free autographed copy of Oliver's Must-do List to the first teacher who brings Oliver to their school and who mentions they read about Oliver's school visits via cynsations.
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