Friday, February 10, 2006

Author Interview: Margaret Bechard on Spacer and Rat

Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook 2005). Jack has lived his entire life at Freedom Station, a supply outpost run by the Company for those en route to the asteroid belt. His life is under control, and he has booked passage to finally meet relatives at the even more remote Liberty Station. Then he meets Kit, an "Earthie," which by definition means trouble. Worse, she carries a contraband maintenance "bot" named Waldo that the Company is seeking to get its hands on. Should he turn them in or help them and complicate his life? Margaret Bechard has created a "world" that will feel familiar and yet fresh, with engaging and compelling characters. Ages 12-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

My husband, Lee, is a computer engineer, and he loves gadgets. For his birthday about eight years ago, my kids and I gave him a handheld GPS. Of course we had to try it out, so the next Saturday Lee and I coerced our youngest son, Peter, into taking a hike with us. Peter was thirteen years old, and of course he ended up carrying the GPS. As we hiked, he gave us minute-by-minute reports on our location, our speed, our elevation, how many satellites were available; basically everything you want to know when you're out communing with nature. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the trail, and he turned to me, and he said, "You know who could really use a GPS, Mom?" Hm, I thought, not us.... But I said, "Who could really use a GPS?" "Pirates," Peter said. "If pirates had a GPS, they wouldn't need to waste time drawing those treasure maps. They could just put the coordinates in the GPS, and then they'd always know where their treasure was."

Pirates with a GPS? It was an easy leap -- for my brain anyway -- to pirates in space. I spent the rest of the hike with space ships and laser guns and techno pirates buzzing in my head. And Spacer and Rat was conceived.

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

I keep a writing journal, very sporadically; I keep thinking that somehow writing about my writing is going to make me actually do more writing. I'm not sure this works. But according to my journal, in the winter of 1999 I was working on "this sci fi story." Thinking a lot about pirates and space ships and space treasure. And not making much headway. Because, at the same time, I was getting flashes from this other kid -- glimpses of scenes, whispers of dialogue, a few pages of 17-year old commentary -- I was "channeling that teenaged boy with the baby." After a couple of months of trying to shut him out of my office and my brain, I finally accepted that I was trying to work on the wrong story. So I put the sci fi story away, and I wrote Hanging On To Max (Roaring Brook, 2002)(excerpt) instead.

When I finish a book, my editor always says, "So. What are you going to work on next?" When I was able to put Sam's story to rest, I remembered that I still had those characters off floating around somewhere in the Asteroid Belt. And I felt kind of bad. I'd abandoned them out there. They were probably running out of air by now. So I took out my old notes and the scraps I'd managed to write. And it took me another two years to figure out how to tell their story.

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

My biggest challenge writing this book was that I thought it was going to be so easy. Oh, sigh. This was going to book that was just going to write itself. Why? Because Robert Louis Stevenson had already written it. Yes, I admit it. When I first started thinking about this book -- when I first thought, "Pirates in space! Ooh!" -- I immediately thought "Treasure Island! I'll just take the plot of Treasure Island, and I'll move it to outer space.... It will be perfect!"

I actually dug out our copy and reread the book. I made charts of the action. I made chapter by chapter plot outlines. Terrific, I thought. I'll plug my characters and their world into this story and, hey, in two, maybe three months, I'll be done.

Except that every time I got to about chapter eight, the story would just die on me. Every time I got to the point where my characters had to get on that space ship and go out there and look for that treasure...they wouldn't go. They'd just sit around and talk. And talk. And talk. None of them wanted to do anything. And they certainly had no interest in doing what Stevenson's characters had done. Treasure? They didn't care about treasure. Why would they want to go looking for treasure?

I finally realized that Stevenson's story was, well, his story. I finally realized that my characters had to have their own story based on who they really were, based on what they cared about, based on what they wanted and needed. It was, in many ways, a sad day. But I finally stopped whining and feeling sorry for myself. And I scrapped months of work and went back to the beginning....

At the same time, I was also realizing everything I didn't know about the world I was building. I had done some research, but I realized I had only scratched the surface. I went back to the library and did more reading on space stations and robot design and rocket propulsion. At the same time, I had a lot of help from my husband and my three sons. Many of our dinners began with me saying, "Okay. If you were going to design a space ship, what would you use for fuel?" Or "Let's talk about artificial intelligence. How would you define sentience?" Listening to them talk and debate and argue helped me organize my own thinking. And gave me new ideas for more research.... But as the world became clearer to me -- and the rules that govern that world became clearer -- I also started to understand my characters better.

How would you describe the current state of YA sciene fiction? What are the challenges specific to it? What are the encouraging signs?

I think the current state of YA science fiction is strong. The genre is getting more attention and more respect; I've heard several editors in the past few months say that they are looking for science fiction stories to add to their lists. The challenge of writing science fiction is to stay as true to science fact as we know it, to try to get the science part as right as possible, while getting the emotional life of the characters right as well. I also think it's important to remember that science fiction doesn't have to be depressing. YA science fiction often paints a very bleak picture of the future. I think science fiction can be hopeful. I think it can even be funny.

But what excites me about writing these stories in the opportunity it gives me to think about current ideas and issues from a different perspective. It lets me ask those important, intriguing questions -- "who are we?" and "why are we?" and "how can we change?" -- in new and interesting ways. While still telling an exciting and compelling story. Plus, I just love aliens and space ships and robots....

Cynsational Notes

Related bibliographies include young adult books and science fiction.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

2006 Write It Now! Competition Opens for Entries

From SmartWriters.com:

The 2006 Write It Now! Competition is open for entries!

Competition. There’s $1,495.80 in cash and prizes up for grabs. Entry fee: $15 first entry, $10 addtional entries; entry deadline: March 15, 2006. Enter online and polish your entry right up until we lock them down for judging! Go to right now and reserve your spot.

Judges include Cynthia Leitich Smith (MG), Sonya Sones (Poetry), Alex Flinn (YA)(author interview), Fran Rusackas (PB), Dori Chaconas (CB), Darby Creek Executive Editor Tanya Dean (NF), and Boyds Mills Press Art Director Tim Gillner (IL).

And just for Cynthia Leitich Smith readers, a special offer: reserve your spot by February 28 and get two full months of Gold Membership as a bonus, including free admission to all of our Professional Series Teleseminars through April! Other Gold Member bonuses include special articles on how to write a synopsis and how to write a query letter, plus access to our audio archives so you’ll be able to hear all of the teleseminars recordings, even if you can’t attend the day of the event.

When you sign up, write “Cynsational Writer” in the comments box and you’ll be made a Gold Member.

You don't have to submit a manuscript today. You've got until March 15 to upload your entries. We're locking them down for judging at midnight on the 15th. But to get the bonuses, you do need to come and sign up for the competition, and including the teleseminars.

Here's what's coming up:

Wizards of the Coast Senior Editor Nina Hess will talk about writing for a fantasy series
Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006
Start Time: 9 a.m. Pacific

C. Hope Clark on The Shy Writer and Funds for Writers
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Start Time: 9 a.m. Pacific

ALA Notable Book Author Marilyn Singer Talks About Writing Poetry and Rhyming Picture Books
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Start Time: 9 a.m. Pacific

Scott O'Dell Award Winner Alexandria LaFaye Talks About Writing Historical Fiction
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
9 a.m. Pacific Std Time

Brent Hartinger on Gays and Geeks in YA Literature (author interview)
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Start Time: 9 a.m. Pacific

Cynsational News & Links

I've recently interviewed author Julie Anne Peters about her last two young adult novels, Luna (Little Brown, 2004)(author interview)(excerpt) and Far From Xanadu (Little Brown, 2005)(author interview)(excerpt), but I wanted to also flag her latest title, Between Mom and Jo (Little Brown, 2006), which I just finished last night. It's the story of Nick, who finds himself caught in the midst of growing tensions between his two moms. The book is emotionally intense and affecting with welcome spots of humor. Grab a hanky and prepare to fall in love with a family in flux. Ages 12-up. See also young adult fiction, exploring diversity: themes & communities: sexual orientation/GLBT.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

A hearty thanks and cheers to fellow book affectionado and Buffy fan Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy for her kind words about the recent redesign of my website by Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys (web designer interview); see Liz's Feb. 3 post. Other Cynsational readers who posted announcements are encouraged to write me with the URL so I can check it out.

Arab American Children's Literature: An Update: Elementary through High School by Tami C. Al-Hazza from Book Links (PDF file). See also Lasting Connections of 2005: Preschool through High School by Laura Tillotson, also from Book Links.

Are You A Writer Looking for Inspiration? No Subject is Taboo: Musings for February 2006 by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba, children's book illustrator: site features beginning writer resource links, beginning web design advice, breaking into children's book publishing advice, book related activity pages, and digital illustration advice. Dulemba's books include The Prince's Diary, written by Renee Ting (Shen's Books, 2005), named No. 1 2006 Valentines Day Pick by Book Sense; Glitter Girl and the Crazy Cheese, written by Frank Hollon (MacAdam/Cage Publishers, 2006); and Haley and the Big Blast, written by A.E. Scotland (Foundation for Girls, Inc., 2006).

The Goddess of YA Literature offers insights in a bounty of books, including Travel Team by Mike Lupica (Philomel, 2004)(excerpt), The Last Domino by Adam Meyer (Putnam, 2005), Gossamer by Lois Lowry, Vandal by Michael Simmons (Roaring Brook, 2006), and Played by Dana Davidson (Hyperion, 2005)(excerpt).

Get to know Jenny Han. Jenny is the debut author of Shug (Simon & Schuster, 2006). Visit her LiveJournal!

Featured Author: Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson from Children's Book Reviews (hit "featured author" in the navigation bar along the top). See also a recent Cynsations interview with Kathleen on Dumb Love (Roaring Brook, 2005).

"Here in the Bonny Glen" is hosting a Carnival of Children's Literature on Feb 1. (A blog carnival is a collection of topic-related posts from various weblogs. In this case, the topic is children's literature. To see what a carnival looks like, visit the most recent edition of the Carnival of Education. If you have a blog about children's books and would like to submit a post to the Carnival, send an email with the following information:
Your blog's name and URL
The post's title and URL (permalink)
Brief description of post (if you wish)
Your email address (will not be posted or shared)
Entries may be book reviews; interviews; stories from parents, teachers, librarians, etc, about kids' adventures with books; behind-the-scenes posts from children's book authors and illustrators; or any other kind of post relating to children's literature. Carnival Submissions are due on Saturday, Feb 11th by 6 p.m. See more information.

Getting in Touch with Your Inner Ham by Kim Norman from Smart Writers Journal (scroll to read).

The February issue of Kid Magazine Writers has been posted. Features include an article on writing nature poetry, tips on cutting adverbs, common reasons articles are rejected, insights into writing non-fiction for the religious market, and an editor interview.

Children's Author Charline Profiri: official author site features Biography, Writing Tips, Writing Quotes, Links, FAQ's about Charline's book, Counting Little Geckos (The RGU Group, 2005), and much more.

Linda Joy Singleton reviewed Grand & Humble by Brent Hartinger (HarperTempest, 2006) on Feb. 7.

Sending out cheers to Kimberly Griffiths Little and Coleen Paratore!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Author Interview: Marina Budhos on Ask Me No Questions

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt). Nadira, 14, has always been the plump one, the less-bright one, the dim light behind the shining star of her older sister Aisha, 18. After September 11, their family of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh seeks asylum in Canada. They are turned away at the border, and Abba (father) is arrested. As time passes and hope grows dim, it's Nadira who must find her voice and make people see her, believe in her--and accept. Ages 10-up. See more of my thoughts on Ask Me No Questions.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

It came out of a few impulses that all came together in a kind of rush.

I had written a book several years ago, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers (Henry Holt, 1999)(scroll), where I had interviewed and profiled immigrant teenagers. In the course of speaking with them, I became very aware of the experience of being a Muslim in America, especially, at that time, in the wake of the Gulf War. Out of those interviews, I crafted a section called To Be Young, Muslim and Female in America Today: Three Stories.

Fast forward to 9/11 and the swirl of events in that aftermath--I was reading about the effect of the Patriot Act, the detainments and deportations. Out of my prior book, I kept in touch with immigrant groups and asked about what was happening with these families. I could not stop thinking about the kids I had interviewed years before. I was on a panel with an activist who told me that the Bangladeshi community in New York City had been shattered by this experience, since so many of them were undocumented. Then one morning I opened the paper to read about families fleeing to the Canadian border, in hopes of getting asylum there; how their children had been growing up in America and believed this was their home. It was as if overnight, everything, their future, had been taken from them.

Suddenly, I remembered something else: a memory of my own father, a Guyanese immigrant, who really never lost the fear that his citizenship could be taken away from him. Every time we crossed a border, he would panic, fumble with his passport, forget essential information if they asked him questions. One foggy night we were in driving in Canada, to visit relatives, when we were stopped by the Canadian police. They asked my father to go into the car with them -- I'll never forget the look of terror on my father's face. While we waited, my mother grew hysterical. In fact, they were stopping us about a broken tail light, and had brought my father in the car, to stay out of the rain. But that experience brought back how under the surface, for an immigrant, particularly one of color, that sense of being an outsider, of having something taken away, is never very far away.

So literally, the story came to me, all in a rush, out of my research and my own personal memories. I actually wrote the first chapters in one week, and the book flew out of me, fueled, I think by outrage, pain, and a desire for this story to be told.

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

Again, as I mentioned, I wrote it rather quickly, while these events were swirling around. I wrote the book in about ten weeks. Then I got some comments and let it sit a while before revising. I spent about another six weeks revising. We then sent it out to several publishers, almost all of whom were interested in publishing it.

In fact, during this time NY Times reporter Nina Bernstein broke a story about an illegal Bangladeshi girl who was imprisoned for being a suspected terrorist. The authorities claimed they had found “something” on her computer. For me, this was the strange experience of life imitating art. I sent the book to Nina, and she called me up to say that I had no idea how perfectly I had captured that experience—and that there are so many kids out there, experiencing exactly this—their lives in limbo, their situation invisible. Indeed, she sent the book to those girls who were eventually deported to Bangladesh—the younger sister, especially, who is very Americanized, has been really having a hard time of it.

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

I think the greatest challenge was making sure I had the balance between the political and social pressures and the family dynamics. I did not want this to be seen as an “issue” or “problem” novel—it needed to be as rich in literary and psychological dynamics. I also wanted the characters to be recognizable to an American audience—and potentially an audience outside the States, too. At the same time, I wanted American kids to feel what it’s like when you want the same thing—a future here--and yet it’s somehow just out of your reach, or taken away from you.

Certainly I wanted to be very specific to this culture—I had chosen Bangladesh as opposed to other potential cultures because I had lived in Calcutta, which is in West Bengal, and also visited Bangladesh, so I felt comfortable with Bengali culture. At the same time, I wanted these characters to be kids that we all could know: the know-it-all, high achieving older sister and the left-in-the-shadows younger sister. Nadira was pretty clear to me, from the get-go (perhaps because I’m a younger sister) but I had to work at Aisha, in understanding the arc she goes through, and especially her internal breakdown. I had to force myself to get more inside her character and understand how she would be the one who would crumble. That took up a lot of my revision time.

While all of my work seems to carry a certain non-fiction element (my next young adult novel as well) I try not to over-research. I try to go with my gut and artistic intuition, and then use the research as I need to. With respect to the immigration details, I did interview an immigration lawyer. I also had the manuscript vetted by a Bangladeshi friend, who is also an activist around issues such as this, and was familiar with what was going on in the community at the time.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Author Interview: Sue Corbett on Free Baseball

Free Baseball by Sue Corbett (Dutton, 2006). Felix loves baseball and longs for the day when his father, who's a baseball star in Cuba, will join him and his mother in Florida. When a team with a couple of players who might be Cuban comes to town, Felix takes advantage of being mistaken for the bat boy to stow away in the team bus. Exciting and heartfelt--a home run! Ages 8-up. See more of my thoughts on Free Baseball.

Sue Corbett on Sue Corbett: "I define myself, principally, in these ways: I am one of four children of two highly dysfunctional Irish immigrants. I am the mother of three hooligans, each of whom was born with an extra chromosome for personality. Someone who writes for children could not ask for material better than the stuff they are constantly providing me with, mostly unintentionally. This is doubly fortunate since I put writing in the same category of essentials as food, air, and water. I write every day. Sometimes all day, with breaks for snacks, reading, laundry, baseball games, reading, piano lessons, homework, and reading. And tennis. Tennis is my drug.

"Lastly, you probably need to know that my husband married me because, on our first date, I launched into a long, impassioned screed about how the Mets' front office was trading away young talent for quick fixes that weren't going to be enough to get us a pennant. This speech was all he needed to convince him that I was his bashert, EVEN THOUGH, he roots for the Twins."

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I took my oldest son, Conor, to a Florida Marlins game a few years ago. It was "Jersey Night." Every kid under 12 got a teal blue team shirt upon entering. After the game, these same kids were invited to do the "Diamond Dash," which meant they were allowed to run around the bases once, pretending they had just hit home runs. I dropped Conor off on the first base side of the field and the usher instructed me to go to the third base side to pick him up. I scurried over there, but when I looked down at the infield to watch him run, I couldn't pick him out. Every kid was wearing the same teal blue shirt! I worried aloud about this to the woman standing next to me who was also trying to figure out which ambulatory munchkin belonged to her and she said, "Boy, if a kid wanted to run away, this would be a good time to do it."

And, I swear, it was like being struck by lightning. Felix Piloto (his first name was one of the very first things he told me) whispered in my ear at that very moment. He told me he was running away. He was beyond angry at his mother, who never had time for him anymore, and he needed to find somebody who would tell him more about his absent father - why, in particular, his father the star baseball player, was still stuck in Cuba, and when, specifically, he would finally be coming to America.

And when I did find Conor we did the Diamond Dash to the car where I always keep a reporter's notebook, and I quickly scribbled down everything Felix had told me.

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

The first draft of this story came quickly -- it was only about 100 pages and I wrote it in a few months. But I revised it twice, with excruciatingly long periods of waiting in between each revision letter. We're talking years.

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

My first book hewed so closely to my autobiography that the biggest challenge for me in this one was trying to write authentically from outside my culture without feeling like I was appropriating somebody else's story.

As it turned out, however, a lot of Felix's mother's concerns are my concerns, too, and a lot of the first-generation experience is similar no matter which country your parents hail from. This is generalizing, but I have met the children of immigrants from many different countries and there's almost always this refrain about the pressure to excel, to prove we belong here, and to make it economically - to take advantage of having been among the lucky who landed inside the American dream.

Tucked within Free Baseball is also this gushy valentine to my husband, Tom, because the ballpark and team that Felix runs away to is based on a real place and team. There was a team called The Miracle (they are now based in Fort Myers, FL) that, in the 1990s, had lost its major league affiliation and played in this crummy little stadium in Pompano Beach, Florida. This stadium is pretty much where our entire courtship took place, since we both loved baseball, and loved minor league baseball most of all.

Of course, the book is also dedicated to Mike Veeck, who owns the Miracle, and anybody who knows him knows that, like Vic Mench, the general manager of the Miracle in Free Baseball, Mike, too, had a very famous baseball dad. (However, Mike's wife is alive and well!) Homer is also based on a real dog. You can see a photo of that darling pooch on my website, www.suecorbett.com.

You're also the author of one of my other favorite books, 12 Again (Dutton, 2002)(teaching guide). Could you briefly tell readers a bit about that novel and how you transitioned from one project to another?

Cyn, did you know that 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) is in its seventh hardcover printing? This book is like The Little Engine That Could. I think it must be you, telling people how much you like it, who is fueling sales.

12 Again is a very different book, a very indulgent book, if you will, since I never thought it would be published and I wrote it as an exercise in sanity when I had three children, including a newborn, and had just moved to Virginia from Florida when Tom got transferred.

It was my way of thinking about the choices we make and whether we would choose differently if we got a "let," as they say in tennis (at least they say that a lot when I am serving.) It's hard for me to believe how many kids have told me they love this book since the professional criticism there was of it was that it had more appeal for grownups than middle readers. But maybe kids like walking in Bernadette's shoes as she realizes how much her sons mean to her and how empty her life would be without them. Maybe every kid knows -- or hopes -- that's the way their sometimes difficult mother feels about them.

Plus, there's the magical bunny.

Sometimes you wear another hat, that of children's book reviewer. How do your roles as author and reviewer inform one another?

As I tell school groups, you simply cannot be a writer if you are not a reader.

By this yardstick, I ought to be the world's best writer but . . . alas. So I keep reading, hoping that one day I will get it, the words, and the story, and the emotion will all click into place and something truly wonderful and powerful will emanate from my keyboard.

Meanwhile, I have read many worthy and great books, the privilege for which I am actually paid. Really, I have a magical job.

I also tell the school kids, "I lie on the couch and read and I am paid to do that," and I have to pinch myself sometimes to remind myself that is actually true. It is a fabulous gig.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No: I still don't have an agent. (People are always asking me that.)

At this point, I don't really have an editor, either, since the acquiring editor, Meredith The Divine Mundy Wasinger, left Hudson Street for the Park Avenue pastures of Sterling Publishing Co.

I do, however, have the world's most astute and competent assistant editor, Dutton's Margaret Woollatt, without whom Free Baseball would be in a cardboard box in an office somewhere, yellowing. Huzzahs to assistant editors everywhere who do all the work and get none of the credit! Long live the Margaret Wollatts of the publishing world!
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