Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Interview with Ellen Hopkins

Hi, Ellen. I cannot thank you enough for giving me an interview during your very precious week off. I’m honored to have you at For the Love of YA for a few reasons: 1.) You’re awesome. 2.) You shed light on censorship, and 3.) you became an online presence to protect the YA I also tried to protect. Sometimes we don’t win, but when we fight, people listen, and those people may go out and effect change eventually. And that’s why you are listed in the annals of my YA Heroes. I think I’ll make some kind of badge for that. 🙂

Here are my burning questions:

1.) Creating characters can be intimidating, but I can’t imagine doing so with the tight economy of words that verse requires. This makes me wonder if your characters are so real because you spend massive amounts of time carefully selecting words or if your characters just come effortlessly from your fingertips. Could you tell a bit about how you create your characters and what process you go through to build them?

Character building is what I do first and foremost. It’s almost all I do in the prewriting process because I believe plot should flow from character. I generally start with a topic/theme. Think about what kinds of people would be affected by the issue I’m writing about. Motivation is key, so I think about that. What would drive a person’s needs/wants? Who are the people around the main characters—love interests, family, friends? Usually by the time I sit down to start a book, I know the main characters inside out. Still, they can surprise me.

2.) When and why did you choose to write in verse? Do you ever just want to give up and write in prose?

I’ve always written poetry, and have played with many styles, including rhyme and meter and formal poetry. So the poetry part isn’t difficult. I started my first YA novel, Crank, in prose, but the voice was all wrong. Angry. Not “Kristina” at all. I put the book away and went to a writers conference where I saw Sonya Sones (another verse novelist) speak. It struck me there that verse might be exactly the way to tell the story. I tried it. Liked it, and discovered a certain talent for it. Will I write in prose again one day? Maybe. But I like making every word count and, in fact, grow really impatient with modifier overkill in books.

3.) Within the realm of raw reality, you have such a talent for sensitively portraying the “other” in our society: poor, homosexual, addicted, etc. What gave you the passion to portray characters that represent the social fringe?

I guess I always kind of felt like an “outsider.” First, I was adopted. That sets you apart. I remember one time in maybe fifth or sixth grade, a classmate (private school, so there were only twelve in our class) called me a “bastard.” That stung. Then, I started high school where I knew no one, and most of the kids had been friends forever. That put me on the fringe. I was super smart, and that didn’t help, either. I wasn’t like the kids I write about, exactly, but I definitely felt like I didn’t fit in. I hope my books help readers develop empathy for the disenfranchised. Just because you’re not mainstream doesn’t mean you don’t deserve love, understanding and friendship.

4.) Because of your dedication to the marginalized, you’ve been pushed to the same many times. I think we all know of the Humble, TX incident, and how you handled the censorship with grace, but at the end of the day, how do you cope with unfeeling attacks against your craft, against the characters you’ve undoubtedly come to love and understand? And how do you stay encouraged?

The messages from my readers make me know without a doubt that what I write is necessary, and valued. When readers tell you your books have literally saved their lives, you know you’re doing something right. And, I would add, I believe the Creator put me on this path. You can’t argue with God.

5.) Also about Tricks, what inspired you to take on multiple protagonists? And how did you settle on five?

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to enjoy writing from multiple viewpoints. Before Tricks, I wrote three POVs in Impulse, and two in Identical. I love interweaving the stories, and illustrating how people from different walks of life can end up in the same place. Not sure why five, exactly, but I wanted really disparate stories for Tricks, as there are many paths to the streets of Las Vegas. All three girls, BTW, were inspired by readers’ stories.

6.) First, let me say: I love Tricks. But I can see it being very controversial because it’s so real (and trust me, I know controversy *winks). What words of encouragement do you have for librarians or teachers out there who want to make it available to students?

I thought Tricks needed to be that graphic because life as a prostitute isn’t Pretty Woman, and shouldn’t be represented as such. How can you possibly write about prostitution accurately without showing the ugliness of selling your body? I don’t want kids to think this is a viable way to pay for college, or designer jeans. But, as raw as it is, it is NOT as graphic as a lot of adult fiction. I do know the difference. Did draw a certain line. I think most YA authors write with a true sensibility of our readership. And kids who can’t find the information they need in YA will go looking for it in adult books.
I believe young readers self-censor fairly well. Tricks isn’t for every teen. But for a child who has been sold at a young age (and I do have letters attesting to the fact that this is not as uncommon as you might think), often by a parent or step-parent, this is a book that lets them know they aren’t alone, that they can be okay, that someone will love them anyway.

7.) I think I understand people who censor, or attempt to censor, and though I find their attempts naïve and misguided, I think many (probably most) only want what is best for kids. With the clashing ideologies, though, it’s often times tough to open intelligent and calm dialogues with the opposition. However, is there a message that you really want to get across to those agents of censorship that have, or will, come against books like Tricks?

Yes, that closing your eyes to the ugly side of life won’t make it prettier. That young people face major decisions every day—should they ditch class? Take a hit off that joint? Smoke meth, or maybe just pop a pill to feel better? Drive drunk? Have sex? Turn tricks for some spending money? Information is key to helping our youth make better choices, and putting a human face on it (as opposed to abstinence programs, which clearly don’t work) lets them see the outcome of such decisions. Books don’t damage kids. Lack of information does.

8.) What made you want to be a writer? Were there times you thought about (or did) something else as your career path?

I’ve always loved to write, and was always writing something (poetry, short stories, essays, etc.), even when not for money. I have always enjoyed entrepreneurship, too. Only had one actual job, right out of high school, before starting a number of small businesses. But I always believed one day I’d be a writer. Not necessarily an author, let alone a bestselling author. Again, I think I was put on this trajectory by a higher power.

9.) When I teach main idea, I ask students to read a paragraph and condense it into just six words (a trick I learned from a Writing Project pro a few years ago). But I’ve never done this with a lingual economist before! Here is the question, and you get only six words to answer: Why do you write YA?

To help build a brighter future.

10.) Could you give some advice to YA writers out there who are breaching controversial topics?

Best thing I can say is to write the stories that speak to your heart. Write courageously. Write real. Write where your targeted readership lives, without fear of censorship, or expectation of awards or rewards. Most of all, you must love and respect this generation, in all its incarnations, because these young people are, in fact, our future. Write boldly. Write real. Write stories that must be told, and stories only you can tell.

Bonus questions:
Most intimidating moment? Telling my (now husband, then live-in relationship) that after seven years of cohabitation, that we were either getting married or he needed to take a hike.

First car? 1968 Mustang. Wish I still had it.

Favorite fast-food restaurant? Rarely eat fast food. But probably Q-doba.

Air-conditioning or windows down? Depends on the month/temp/weather. Mostly air con.

Most nostalgic song? John Lennon’s Imagine.

An influential or inspiring book you’ve read? Stephen King’s On Writing.

Thanks again. I hate that I missed you in Florida, but perhaps we’ll meet up in Chicago for ALAN 2011. Until then, be well, write more, and keep on kicking censorship where it counts!

Interview with Sarah Ockler

Hey, Sarah. Thank you so much for agreeing to interview with me. I love talking with authors and learning the proverbial tools of the trade; however, you were of particular interest to me, as I learned of your name in conjunction with censorship, an area of interest for me. I’ll have to say, after reading Twenty Boy Summer, that for such a “controversial” writer, you sure did keep your “dirty” parts clean. As I read, I kept waiting for the really bad sections that promoted really bad things in a really distasteful way…and as it turns out, I’m still waiting. While waiting, however, I reached the conclusion that this emotional thriller (is this a genre? If not, let’s make it one) should be included in libraries everywhere for its raw literary beauty and Truth about teenage love and loss. Now, that means nothing coming from one measly reader/self-proclaimed critic/wanna-be author; but, I’m certain that I am not alone in my astute conclusions of your character-driven, contemporary YA masterpiece, or, for the sake of essence, your C.C.Y.A.M. 🙂
1.) What was the most difficult part about writing scenes that involve sexuality when the target audience is teenagers? Any “panic button” moments in construction of these scenes?
The most difficult part, however non-graphic, is balancing authenticity with gratuitousness. Obviously YA is not erotic fiction, but it’s also important to evoke the setting and feelings of the scene, and that requires sensory details and good description. At the same time, I don’t want to go overboard — lots of things can be left to a reader’s imagination. It’s a tough balance, but ultimately, I don’t shy away from writing mature content, as long as it’s necessary to the story. That’s the test for me. I ask, is this really part of the story, without which the plot doesn’t work? If yes, then it stays, and I try to make it as honest as possible, regardless of whether some adults might find it objectionable for teens to read. I’m not writing to please potential censors, just as I’m not writing for shock value. I’m just telling stories, and in these stories, the characters deal with sexuality, so that’s what goes on the page.
Obviously you can tell by my rambling answer that this is really a tough question with no right answer! 😉
In terms of panic button moments, no, I didn’t feel any sort of freak-outs about the sex scenes in Twenty Boy Summer. If anything, I wondered if they were detailed enough! 😉 Despite the title, the book is actually not about teens randomly hooking up. But, sex is a fact of life, and teens are faced with choices every day, just like Anna and Frankie in the book. Whatever their choices, whatever the consequences, I wanted to show the issue through the eyes of my characters.

2.) Was there ever a time when you played with the idea of Anna having lost the Albatross to Matt before his death? If so, what changed your mind?

I thought about it, but ultimately I realized it wouldn’t work for the story I wanted to tell. Part of Anna’s main struggle throughout the book is that she doesn’t know exactly what she lost when Matt died. He wasn’t quiet her boyfriend yet, and she wasn’t even sure whether he returned her intense feelings. She really has to come to terms with the fact that she’s allowed to grieve and miss him, too, and that it’s okay to move on and have feelings for someone else. If she’d lost her virginity to him, I think that would’ve take the story in a very different direction.

3.) Many of your readers will never have heard of the Grateful Dead, but I literally had “Casey Jones” stuck in my head for days after reading the beginning. What process did you go through in choosing that song?

I love the Dead and listened to them a lot in high school. I skipped senior prom to see their show in Buffalo. So it just kind of popped into my writing one day, and I was thinking about the car accident and the “Watch your speed” part — it just came together. I realize the song is not about driving too fast, but hey, once it was in there, that was it!

4.) What were some titles you tossed around in your brain? And which one did you almost go with before choosing the provocative and clever Twenty Boy Summer? And, for thematic reasons, how did you know it was The One?

Funny enough, Twenty Boy Summer was the one and only title, start to finish. There was one time early in the writing process, for about five seconds, when I worried that the title might be misleading and thought about changing it to Mermaid Tears (another name for sea glass, which plays a symbolic role in the story), but my writers group revolted. So Twenty Boy Summer stayed, and fortunately my agent and editor loved it, too.

5.) What kinds of feedback—good or bad or both—have readers shared with you after reading Twenty Boy Summer?

The feedback from readers has been overwhelmingly positive. I think a lot of people can relate to the feelings of loss and confusion that Anna and Frankie experience in the book, regardless of whether they’ve actually experienced death of a close friend or loved one. The story struck an emotional chord with readers. In terms of “the bad” — readers don’t generally contact me to share negative feedback (if they didn’t like it, they don’t bother emailing me), but I do know that some people didn’t care for Frankie, Anna’s best friend. She’s a very complex and difficult character, and for most of the story, she’s pretty superficial and demanding. Not everyone liked or understood her! And of course, some folks don’t think teens should be reading about sexuality, but that’s *another* story… 😉

For anyone interested in more specific feedback, you can check out the reviews on goodreads or amazon. YA readers are very passionate and vocal, so you’ll see all kinds of opinions there!

6.) It broke my heart when Frankie admitted that she wanted her parents to care enough to call her out. And I felt like that was a seed—that her parents would catch her and Anna sneaking out, force them out of a lie, and then Anna would mediate to make things better. Why was it important to you, and the story, for Red and Jayne to stay seemingly oblivious to the bad behavior?

I was inspired to write Twenty Boy Summer by my work with the National Donor Family Council, an organization that supports families whose loved ones have died and donated organs or tissues. I came to know so many parents who’d suffered the death of their children, and I will never ever forget them. When I started writing the book, it was very important to me that Frankie’s parents be portrayed authentically, and that meant showing them as parents who truly loved their daughter, but who were so devastated and blind-sided by the death of their son that they just couldn’t be attentive to day-to-day life. Red and Jayne were good parents, but often turned a blind eye on Frankie’s antics because most days, it was all they could manage just to get out of bed and function. I met lots of teens through the Council who’d survived a sibling, and so often, they become the forgotten mourners. The parents’ grief is so all-consuming, the other children sometimes get unintentionally pushed aside. That’s not pleasant, and for some readers, this aspect of the story didn’t work for them — they wanted Frankie to get caught, wanted her parents to catch on. But again, my goal was to tell the story authentically, and to do that, Frankie’s parents had to be seemingly oblivious.

7.) What challenges did you face with writing this story or your newest, Fixing Delilah? (Which I am putting on my list, btw.)

In terms of the story itself, Fixing Delilah was a challenge because I had to dive into a lot of mother/daughter issues from my teen years in order to bring Delilah’s issues with her mom to the surface. That wasn’t always fun — there’s some rocky terrain there! Logistically, the story was challenging because unlike Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah was sold before it was written, and I had a tighter deadline. It was also tough to create a voice that was different from the one of Anna Reiley in Twenty Boy Summer, which I’d been hearing in my head for years. 🙂

8.) Can you give us an update on challenges to Twenty Boy Summer? How have you dealt with those challenges?

I haven’t heard any recent updates on the Republic, MO challenge, and I’m not sure about the final outcome. Things seem to have quieted down on that front. The good news is that the issue gave a lot of exposure to books like Speak, Slaughterhouse Five, Twenty Boy Summer, and all challenged books. It got people talking about the issue, blogging, tweeting, standing up for free choice, and that’s the important thing, regardless of the final decisions in Missouri.

The initial challenge hit me hard because it was so unexpected, and it felt like a personal attack. But I was in very good company with Laurie Halse Anderson and Kurt Vonnegut, and the support that came out of it was amazing — Paul Hankins and the entire #SpeakLoudly campaign — I mean, wow! For all Scroggins’ hating, he sure brought a lot of people together! So to would-be future challengers, I say… *blows raspberries* (Yes, classy *and* mature!)

9.) When and how did you know you wanted to write young adult literature?

I was taking a personal essay class with Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and I’d written a piece about some trouble my best friend and I got into in 10th grade. After class, the instructor approached me and asked if I’d ever considered writing for teens — he felt I had a great voice for it. I hadn’t, but since I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write, I signed up for Lighthouse’s YA novel class to check it out. There, we read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Deb Caletti’s Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, and books by other contemporary young adult authors, and it was like the chorus of angels descended on down… laaaaa! That’s what I wanted to write! Yes! I’d found my writing voice! I’d discovered what I was born to write — YA literature! I started writing Twenty Boy Summer in that class, and I’ve never turned back.

10.) What has been your most memorable moment as a writer? Why?

This whole journey has been so amazing, and I truly feel like every email from a reader or school visit or book signing is memorable — a reminder of how fortunate I am to be doing what I love and interacting with so many fabulous, passionate people who love books. I will also never forget all of the support and encouragement I received during the book challenge. And I’ll share the most recent memorable thing, too — the other night I walked into a local B&N to sign stock, and a reader saw me with copies of Twenty Boy Summer. She was so surprised — she told me that it was her favorite book. Even hearing that from one reader? I’ll never forget it. 🙂

Quick round:

Favorite story character of all time? OMG this question is impossible! I’ll have to go with a recent pick. Cameron, the narrator of Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE.

Best gift you’ve gotten? A lovely tea kettle from my husband, because I came home one day and there it was on the stove, and he said, “I know how much you love tea, and I noticed the tea kettle was kind of old and rusty.” It was so sweet and awesome and unexpected.

Socks or no socks when you sleep? No socks. I actually have to have one foot sticking totally out of the blanket when I sleep or I get hot (but not both feet, otherwise I get cold).

Most peaceful moment you can imagine? Waking up in a tent in the morning in the woods with no one else around — just the birds and the sunshine. I love that.

Favorite candy? Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Wow, I haven’t had them in so long! This must be remedied!

Preferred vacation spot? Anywhere in the woods or the mountains, far away from civilization.

Most influential person in your life? My husband, Alex. He’s the only person who really knows, understands, and accepts me without question.

 

Thank you, Sarah, for writing a book that bravely explores the real dynamic of teenage life. Great work! And I can’t wait to read your newest book, Fixing Delilah.

Thanks so much for hosting me, Risha! And thanks for everything you do to bring readers and books together!

Interview with Carol Lynch Williams

Hey again, Carol. So glad you came to the blog and checked it out! My readers did help me choose a book to finish first (reference to earlier post, Have You Ever?), which was yours. 😉 I’ve recommended it to quite a few people in the last month, and I believe they’ve all gone and bought it. And I’m so excited to be able to offer it as a literature circle option soon, as my fabulous librarian ordered seven copies after I talked to her about it! Well, this made me happy, Risha! Thank you! I love this kind of news!!!! I will be sure to keep you informed of how literature circles go with The Chosen One as the text (making a prediction here: awesome).

If you’re ready, here are the questions I’d love to have answered:

1.) This book explored a lifestyle that I’ve always been curious about, but my curiosity never went past the taboo. This work breaks through the surface to have readers evaluate the human element of that taboo. What kind of experiences/interests did you have that led your idea to write The Chosen One?

Several years ago I heard about a girl who had run away from home several times. She ran because she was supposed to marry someone in her extended family–you got it–her uncle. it was her FATHER trying to force the marriage. The girl was part of a small polygamist group not too far from where I live. At that moment I knew, someday, that I would write something to do with polygamy. When I got the first line of the book “If I was going to kill the prophet I’d do it in Africa.” I knew I was on my way. This was about 6 years after I heard about the runaway girl.

That’s when the seed was planted, many years ago. (After THE CHOSEN ONE came out, I was talking to a group of librarians from UT. I told this story. “Oh yes,” said one. “That was the something-or-other family.” “Right!” said another. “I think so and so is related to them.” They went on and on about this family–I can’t remember the name–and I sat there a little worried. It was kind of funny–afterward. I think I was afraid someone in the room might be related to this particular man who had tried to force his daughter to marry his brother.)

I did tons of research. I used to write historical fiction for Latter-day Saint girls and learned then you need to know the facts, ma’am. I researched for the whole time I wrote. When I started looking at this topic, everything seemed to be about polygamy—stuff for me to really study. Lots of interviews with polygamists on TV, websites helping people get away from the more strict communities, lots of newspaper reports. I found out about friends who had become polygamists, or were no longer polygamists, and I learned of polygamist groups who frowned on the more strict communities. The information just went on and on. I spoke to one woman about why she had decided to marry a man who later married her mother. I found out there are polygamists all over the United States. And as you can imagine, they are all not like the compound in THE CHOSEN ONE.

 

2.) Similarly, how long did it take you to research the lifestyle and moral code/values inherent therein? Did anything in your research shock you?

Okay–so there’s this article about a little 10-yr-old girl who is missing. She had bone cancer and the chemo made her deaf and she lost part of her leg, too. To make matters worse, that poor child had AWFUL parents. Now authorities can’t find her. (I would have taken her. I would have. I would have raised that little girl.) I guess what shocked me most as I was researching, Risha, was that there is abuse all over. Sometimes we’re like, “The polygs are abusers!” And we say that because their lifestyle is different. But there are loving polygamists families (like I show in THE CHOSEN ONE).

I researched this book about 18 months, the whole time I was writing it. (I wrote THE CHOSEN ONE as my creative thesis for school. I graduated from Vermont College in 2008.) I didn’t want to get anything wrong. And the more I looked into this icky place, the more I knew there were good people and bad people EVERYWHERE–all religions or those who believe in nothing, all states and countries.

 3.) I understand fully the necessity of a young, female protagonist; your work is one that organically requires this voice. However, I’m so interested in Joshua, to know what happened to him–was it only young love?–that made him see the prophets as a farce. Have you ever considered writing a sequel that includes Joshua’s point of view? 

My wonderful editor, Hope Dellon, picked me up from the airport and one of the first things she asked me was, “Will you write a sequel.”  “No!” I told her. But I HAVE thought about Joshua’s story. A lot.

4.) I imagine that you have been flooded with praise not only from critics of YA, but also from your target audience: young readers. Would you please share some readers’ responses to The Chosen One?

This is just in from a librarian in Arkansas. “I’ve got a BUNCH of girls talking to me about it (THE CHOSEN ONE) this morning. I suggested it to one of them and now she’s got all of her friends on the list! YAY! I did have a student ask me yesterday about a sequel tho’ She wants to know if Patrick dies, Where’s Joshua etc.. etc.. AND I’ve gotten statements like “GREATEST book EVER!” “BETTER than TWILIGHT!” “OMGosh! it’s so sad!” “LURVE it!””
So this is quite cool, I think!

5.) Have you met any resistance from readers offended by the perceived negative portrayal of “religious obedience”? If so, has that resistance led to any instances of censorship?

There have been some comments that Kyra isn’t mad enough about the way women are treated in the compound. When this comes up, almost always, the person saying these things thinks it’s MY experience as a Latter-day Saint that makes my character ‘weak’. I finally responded to one person on my blog. The truth is, Kyra has known no other way of life. I honestly don’t think she would understand all that has happened in her life until much later–as she learns to live in the ‘real’ world. (BTW, I haven’t always been LDS. I haven’t been programmed to think anything–especially not that women should be subservient to men.)

6.) How important was reading to you as a child? 

Oh my gosh! I loved to read. I still love to read. This is one of the best parts of my life. And it was when I was a child. I remember once going to the play Of Mice and Men where I read Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST between acts. I was always reading. “I smell books,” I’d tell my mom as we drove past the library. (She didn’t stop enough!) And I try to keep that reading habit alive in my home! All my girls are huge readers, too–well, except the 12 yr old.

7.) When/how did you know you wanted to be a writer? Were there any times that you felt discouraged?

I have ALWAYS wanted to be a writer. As soon as I could put ideas on the page, I was writing. I wrote plays and my sister and cousins and I performed them. They were always dark and sad. My nana watched them all–never once laughing at the ridiculousness of any of the lines! When I was fifteen I started college and the first class I took was creative writing. It was there that I wrote my first short story–and that short story ended up in my first novel many years later.

I have several books published and I still get discouraged. I get scared about mid-way on all my novels and this newest one is no different. I’m also always surprised about what wins awards, what sells for large amounts of money and the shift the market makes. This can be very discouraging. But I love to write, so I keep going. And it’s always worth it!

8.) What does a day in your life look like?

(I love this one–because somehow it seems so crazy to me that authors do laundry and break-up sibling fights–like I’m doing right now.) It seems to me that the days grow shorter and shorter. I try to write every day, spend time with my girls, do laundry . . . I run a big conference every year here in UT. (A week-long beast in June. So far this year we have Holly Black, Martine Leavitt, Kathleen Duey, Kristyn Crow, Claudia Mills, Mike Knudson and Sharlee Glenn as faculty. Mary Kole is the agent for the week. We still need a few more faculty and two editors. This is a time consuming conference that takes many hours each week.)

I get up before my daughters, feed the dog, make a bit of breakfast. I just injured my ankle so I haven’t been exercising, but when I’m better I’ll try to stick that in before I start writing. I ponder about God. Then I start my work. (I try to get a couple hours writing done.) Right now I’m working on a novel that is sort of episodic so my goal is ten plus scenes a day. I try to get home school done with the two girls, have just started taking piano lessons (so I go look at the piano). I answer email, go to Facebook, worry (a lot), do laundry and house cleaning, and then I’ll  watch some TV. I do like TV. After that, quiet family time, then bed. That’s about it!

9.) Can you tell us a little about what you’re writing right now?

I have a new book coming out in March 2011 from St. Martin’s Press. The title is MILES FROM ORDINARY. It’s a story about a girl, her mother and her dead grandfather.  I just sold another book to SMP–a dystopian called THE BODY SHOP. That book kicked my butt and hard! Now I am back to what I love to write (very sad, depressing stuff). This newest novel is about a girl that is ignored when she goes back to school after the violent death of her brother. It’s a book about faith.

 10.) Any advice you could give to aspiring writers? (*pretends to be asking for the sake of others 😉

Hahahah! I do! Read, read, read, and write, write, write. You will never get published if you only think about writing.

Another tip-Before the dystopian novel I wrote and edited as I went, pondering the best words to put on the page. But with THE BODY SHOP (I sold it on about 50 pages) I realized I was NEVER going to get the novel done unless I wrote straight through without worrying about each word. So my newest advice to writers is get the words down then edit. That said, I always read the previous day’s work before starting the next ten scenes–doing a light edit then. This gets me back into the voice and the story. Feel free to read my blog www.throwingupwords.wordpress.com.It’s not so smart as yours, Risha, but we talk about writing every day, including posting a writing exercise each week. My co-writers are Ann Dee Ellis (THIS IS WHAT I DID: and EVERYTHING IS FINE), Ally Condie (MATCHED) and Kyra Williams (my daughter who is working on her first novel.)

Bonus round:

Favorite book: Argh! I have too many to name one. I love the books by Ann Dee and Ally (see above). I also love Courtney Summers work (she has several novels that strangle the life out of you), Jandy Nelson’s  (THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE), Karen Foxlee’s THE ANATOMY OF WINGS, Louise Plummer, AE CAnnon, Claudia Mills, MT Anderson, Randy Powell . . . the list goes on and on. And on. And of course I love Faulker, Steinbeck, Twain, O’Connor, Udall, Enger etc etc etc. (I feel like I was rushing to get in a few of my faves!)

Smell you love: Shalimar

Worst habit:I’m a bit of a downer. My girls would say my worst habit is I have a horrible story about everything. EVERYTHING.

Something you wish you’d learned: How to make better choices so I didn’t spin my wheels on things that wouldn’t work out. And how to stick up for myself.

Ultimate vacation: Wow. Hmmmm. I think I’d like to just hang out with my friends in my own home (that stayed magically clean!) and had warm weather all the time and a chef and a big pool and . . .well, you get the picture.

Thank you so much, Carol, for letting us get to know you better. Your conference sounds amazing and so difficult to plan. Good luck with that! Hopefully I’ll meet you in person at NCTE or ALAN in the future. Me, too!!! If so, perhaps a smidgen of talent will rub off in a handshake–or let’s be real, in a hug. ;-). I am a hugger, too, Risha, so we will get along just fine!

Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m so thrilled to offer this blog audience an interview with you, the fabulous LHA! And what’s more, I’m humbled to post this interview during National Banned Books week, marking the one-year anniversary of the second and final purging of books from my optional reading list, when Twisted and six other titles were removed. It was during this time that Jo Knowles (author of Lessons from a Dead Girl and Jumping Off Swings) was thoughtful enough to put me in contact with you. And you, in turn, were so unbelievably gracious and supportive. I want to thank you for calling attention to my situation at the ALAN breakfast in November of 2009, and again for asking your blog readership to write to my former superintendent on behalf of Twisted and books like it. Though none were rescued for the students in that disctrict, I am happy to say that students began checking them out as a literature circle option where I now teach! ( FYI: seconds ago a senior came in after school and asked to switch her lit. circle book to Twisted because she heard it was “sooooo freakin’ good.”)

Long live the first amendment! Long live teachers’ rights to teach! And long live students’ rights to read! (*shouted with much gusto and arm-flailing)

Now, on to some questions.

1.) Where did you find the idea to write Twisted?

The idea for TWISTED came out of dozens of conversations I had with teenage boys. They all talked about three things that bothered them:
1) Girls confused them
2) They had been bullied, or they had been bullies to avoid being picked on
3) They were sad because they didn’t have a good relationship with their father, or with any man who could act as a father figure in their life.
I wove all of these conflicts into TWISTED.

2.) What struggles did you face in entering the mind of an adolescent male?

I had to get rid of my assumptions of what I thought I knew about teenaged boys. That meant I had to suspend my judgement, too, and respect them enough to really listen to what they told me. I actually did some research into the biology of testosterone, too, to get a better understanding of what the rising tide in hormones does to a teenage guy.

3.) Two part question. 1.) Have you experienced censorship of this novel in districts other than my former one? 2.) How does it affect you when your works are attacked?

A few districts have reviewed the book at the request of a parent, but in all cases, except for your old district in Mt. Sterling, KY, the book has been approved. When parents read the entire book they see it is the story of a young man who is struggling with very common issues in our culture, and ultimately making the moral choices, even when they are the harder ones.

The attacks on my books no longer make me upset. I’ve learned that they have little to do with my books, and everything to do with the fears and insecurities of the people trying to have the books banned. I always feel sorry for and protective of the teachers, librarians, and students involved. And I welcome the opportunity to discuss the intellectual freedoms guaranteed us in our Constitution.

4.) The character of Bethany Millbury is so complicated to me. I want to blame her, even though I would never blame a victim of rape under any circumstance. Did you create this character to intentionally complicate your readers’ thinking?

Life is complicated for teenagers. It is our job as caring adults to present them with complicated situations in literature so they can think them through and discuss them. If they do, it increases the chances that if they are ever presented with such a situation in their own life, they will make the right decisions.

Bethany made one mistake the night of that party: she got drunk. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. She should not have done that. Under the influence of alcohol, she went on to do some remarkably dumb things. And then someone took advantage of her inebriation and molested her. I think that Bethany’s story serves as a cautionary tale. I hope it does.

In the real world, I would like to see the people who provide the alcohol for parties like this publicly flogged.

5.) My students were always so mad at the end because Tyler and Bethany never had another face-to-face. Why did you choose not to write this scene?

Everybody wants that drama, don’t they? I wrote that scene several times, with different approaches and endings. It never worked. I think it is because Tyler is smart enough to know that Bethany and he never had a true relationship, and that to argue with her or try to get an apology out of her or try to continue the relationship would be a waste of his time.

Bethany has nothing to gain from that confrontation, either. At least, not at the point of the end of the book. She needs to do some major growing-up (if she is capable of it) before she approaches Tyler and asks to resume at least their friendship.

6.) From observing the growth of Tyler and Bethany, the reader learns so many valuable lessons from this book, which leads to many themes for students to uncover. I’m curious to know about your methodology for having done so. In writing Twisted, and your other books amazing books, did these themes emerge organically from the characters or did you begin the book with these themes in mind?

Honestly? I still don’t know what a theme is. If you write a story that feels true, with well-developed characters and natural conflicts and growth, you can’t help but have a story with overarching themes that reflect the human condition.

7.) At what point in your writing career did you decide for writing to be your only career?

I still have not decided if that is the case.

8.) What are you currently working on and when can we expect to see it?

I’m working on a YA novel that should be out in early 2012, another historical that will be out in late 2012 or early 2013, a book about the writing process (no date for that yet) and a picture book biography about Abigail Adams (also, no date yet).

9.) As an early writer, did you ever face discouraging news that nearly kept you from writing?

The constant rejection was a bit daunting, but I don’t write only to be published. I write because it helps me make sense of the world. Even if I’d never been published, I’d still be scribbling my stories.

10.) Which of your books has been the most fun/meaningful to write? Why?
There is no way to pick one out at the expense of the others, sorry.

Quick recall:
Favorite color: Green
Favorite food: Popcorn
Favorite book: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Most influential person in your career: It is hard to pick one person, but I will go with the late, great Paula Danzinger, who gave me very good advice and encouragement early on, and who connected me with my agent.
A state you’d like to visit: Alaska
Town in which you were born: Potsdam, NY
Dogs or cats: Both. As long as I have allergy medicine.
Lake or ocean: Ocean. With a rocky coastline, please.

Again, thank you so much, Laurie. You’re a brave voice for intellectual freedom and a hero to my former students and me!

Interview with David Macinnis Gill

First of all, I want you thank you, David, for being one of the first to come to my aid during the censorship battle that raged from 2008-2010 in my former school. Your intense understanding of the infrastructure of public schools, as well as your prowess in the field of YA literature, was such a help and inspiration to me.

And congratulations to you for the success of your first published YA novel: an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Kirkus Best Book 2009, Bank Street Best Books of the Year 2010, and NYPL Stuff for the Teen Age 2010. That’s quite impressive for a first publication!

My book club ordered Soul Enchilada in October 2009, right after its release, and just in time for Halloween. The ambiance of the season made it a great literary experience for the students!

I hope some of those students find their way to this blog, as I know they’d love to read the answers to some of the very questions they asked me about you (many of my questions are actually theirs;).

1.) Where the devil did you get the idea to write Bug’s story of fighting demons?

The seed of the story that became Soul Enchilada came from a friendly writing contest that some writer friends hold each Halloween. The goal is to tell the most Halloweeny story. To keep one another honest, we swap story seeds meant to inspire new ideas. My seeds included a chocolate crucifix (which became a crossed Twix bar) and bleeding roses. I added the phrase “Repossession is 9/10ths of the law,” which had been kicking around in my head. These seeds coalesced into the story, and when I started writing the first scene, it came out in Bug’s voice.

2.) Call me a lightweight, but the scene with Bug and Beals in the gas station made me sleep with the lamp on. Have any of your readers shared similar stories with you?

Lots of readers! That scene has been a lightning rod for almost everyone. One reader told me about reading the book in the tub and having to get out so that she could check her doors. Interestingly enough, that scene started out as a throw-away paragraph. My editor pushed, pulled, cajoled and coddled me into to expanding it and cranking up the scary.

3.) The inclusion of Hispanic culture in this book is part of what made it so good and different: the language was fun, the food smelled great, and the cultural experiences were so interesting to read. What experiences influenced your decision to write about this scene?

When I decided to set the novel in El Paso, I wanted to take advantage of the fusion of several cultures that exist in the city. While doing research, I learned of a group of Hispanics working to preserve their neighborhoods and their culture. I decided to set most of the action in those neighborhoods, while letting Bug learn about the other half of herself—the part that had been denied her—at the same time the reader was learning about El Paso.

4.) Soul Enchilada was your first published work, but how important has writing been to you over the years?

Soul was my first published novel, but it wasn’t my first novel (it was the 7th I’d written), and I’ve published short stories since the early 1990’s. Writing has been important to me since elementary school, when I told people I wanted to be a writer and not a fireman or football player.

5.) Has your involvement with ALAN (as former president and constant supporter) influenced your career as a writer?

The short stories I’ve published have been for a literary, adult audience, but when I decided to try writing novels, I decided that my audience would be young adult. My dissertation director and mentor was Ted Hipple, one of the founding members of ALAN and its first executive secretary. Ted helped convince me that my teaching background and work with teens made me an natural fit for writing for young adults.

6.) Because of the heavy-yet-humorous spiritual material–Bug’s annoyance with the minions of Hell, Pesto’s witchy Mama conducting a seance, and of course Bug’s grandfather having sold his soul to El Diablo–I’m wondering if you anticipate, or have experienced, any censorship yet? If so, how have you dealt with that?

Soul Enchilada faced censorship before it was published. When ARCs went out, I started getting emails from librarians who enjoyed it but knew they couldn’t order for their conservation communities (the book is far more popular in the West, while southern libraries seem not to stock it). I also received some testy emails from older readers who complained that my bored, corporate devil wasn’t evil enough. Also, there were many letters criticizing me for writing in the voice of a minority teen, since I;m a middle-aged white guy. That disappoints me because one of the themes of Soul was to judge people for who they are, not for what they look like. Honestly, I’ve been through so many censorship cases as an advocate for teens and teachers that I’m looking forward to a true book banning, rather than the self-censorship we’ve seen so far.

7.) One thing I found so interesting–and applaudable–was the lack of stereotypes in Soul Enchilada. One would imagine that a book about Hell would yield a cheesy amount of good versus evil, of traditionally-garbed priests exorcising Bug’s vehicle, of Christian folklore/superstition being predominant; instead, you steered us into the unknown with the tactics of the International Supernatural Immigration Service. How difficult was it to shake your preconceived notions of fighting evil to create a unique plot?

That’s just the way my warped mind works! Thanks for the compliment, but I think the plot turns were more function of wanting to create hairpin turns in the plot, to draw the reader away from expectations, both in characters and in setting. I really wanted to stretch the reader’s imagination, and to push the definition envelope on what a YA novel could be.

8.) What was the most difficult aspect of writing the content of Soul Enchilada?

Making sure that the structure of the novel—it’s a broad farce that intentionally distracts the reader from the serious issues of poverty, race, and loss—didn’t become so outrageous that it lost the reader along the way.

9.) How many revisions did it take to get your first work ready for publishing?

Dozens. Literally, dozens. I did several revisions before submitting to an agent, then more revisions for interested editors, then more revisions for my editors. Then copyedits and proofs. The final version looks almost nothing like the first draft. Except Bug’s voice. That never changed.

10.) What are you currently writing and when can we expect to find it on the shelves?

I just finished final proofs on Black Hole Sun, a future dystopian science fiction story set on Mars due out on August 24th. It’s the same day as Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, who graciously blurbed Black Hole Sun by saying it “Rockets readers to new frontiers .”

Ready for some quick-recall?

Favorite movie? Alien
Favorite food? Pizza
First book that made a difference in your life? A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Colleges and Universities you went to? University of Tennessee
What music is in your vehicle player right now? Dixie Chicks and Foo Fighters
Where do you write best? On my laptop in the middle of a bustling room full of noise that I can ignore while writing. It’s the act of purposely blocking out the sound that helps me concentrate best.

Thank you, David, for a great interview! I can’t wait to read Black Hole Sun!