Friday, January 17, 2020

Q&A with Gene Barretta

Gene Barretta is the author of the new children's picture book The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver. His other books include Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born and Now & Ben. He lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on George Washington Carver in your new picture book?

A: This book began differently than my usual organic discovery of a subject. The project was originally brought to me by agent, Lori Nowicki. She also handles illustrator Frank Morrison. He wanted to do a book on Carver but didn’t have a manuscript. So she teamed us up.

Frank and I later signed a deal with HarperCollins to do two books about pivotal moments in the childhoods of famous African-Americans. The second book, Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born, came out in January 2017.

Q: How did you research Carver's life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Like all my bios, I read several books, watch any films, explore the internet, and talk to historians. And I always try to find a specialist on the subject to help with fact-checking.

This time around, I spoke to a couple people at the Carver Museum and Monument. I knew very little about Carver when I began, which is always a little scary, because there is the possibility that I may not like the individual. But that wasn’t the case. I really loved Carver.

What surprised me? He wasn’t just about peanuts. He really was instrumental in revitalizing agriculture in the south after the Civil War. He was also a champion in helping ex-enslaved people become self-sufficient farmers with his mobile schoolhouse and agricultural experiments.  

I was also surprised by the hundreds of items he devised using peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes.

I was surprised by how many notable figures met with him and sought out his advice, including Henry Ford and three sitting presidents. His courage as a boy truly impressed me. He went out on his own at the age of 12 to pursue an education, and make his way in a dangerous post-slavery country. 

Q: You've written and illustrated your own books, as well as worked with other writers and illustrators. Do you have a preference? And what do you think Frank Morrison's illustrations add to this book?

A: My preference is to both write and illustrate a book. But, occasionally, I do enjoy the experience of doing one or the other. It’s exciting to get a manuscript and then have the freedom to interpret it visually.

On the flip side of that, I can also enjoy, and honestly get a little nervous, handing over my manuscript to another illustrator. It becomes something very different from how I imagined it in my head while writing.

Fortunately, I’ve been very happy with both of my collaborations with Frank. I am writing a third book with illustrator Craig Orback at the moment on the childhood of Steven Spielberg. 

Q: What do you see as George Washington Carver's legacy today?

A: As I mentioned earlier, one part is revitalizing the southern agriculture and also setting an example for the rest of the country.

He is a great role model for all people, especially African-Americans, who begin life in less than convenient circumstances. He is also a perfect example of someone who can make a big difference in the world through peaceful means. 

Q: Can you say more about what you’re working on now?

A: I just handed in the manuscript for the book on the childhood of Steven Spielberg.

I really connected with certain aspects of his teen years. We were both obsessed with making amateur films, with our sights set on being a film director. I think he did OK in that respect.

We both had a mischievous creative streak in us. And at the same time, we were both watching our parents grow apart and finally divorce.

I’m also writing and illustrating a book on the childhood of artist Andrew Wyeth, which has been a dream project for a long time. It’s a great story to inspire children and attract them to the arts.  

Finally, I have a first draft for a third book that I’ll write and illustrate, but since that isn’t officially contracted yet, I can’t say much about it other than it will be my first female biography.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I can add that I’ve been doing a lot more Realist painting and drawing lately. I don’t plan on changing my illustration style dramatically. But this work will definitely help when I need to set a tone that suits more serious subjects.

I’m really enjoying it. There are a few examples in the Gallery section of my website

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gene Barretta.

Jan. 17

Jan. 17, 1820: Anne Brontë born.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Q&A with Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain is the author of the new novel Big Lies in a Small Town. Her many other novels include The Dream Daughter and The Stolen Marriage. She worked as a psychotherapist before turning to writing full-time, and she lives in North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Big Lies in a Small Town, and for your characters Morgan and Anna?

A: I stumbled across an article about the WPA-era murals somewhere and it reminded me of the murals in my New Jersey hometown post office.

I began digging into the creation of those murals and I loved learning that they were part of the government program to put people—even artists—back to work after the Great Depression.

Many of the murals are lost to time, but others are being restored, so I thought it would be fun to write about the mural during its creation and again during its restoration . . . when its secrets would be revealed.

I had Anna firmly in my mind from the beginning as the 1940 artist. Then I had to create Morgan—and her unique personality and set of problems—to bring the mural into the future.   

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did a lot of book and online research at first, learning about the murals and the program that made them possible.

I was surprised and pleased to learn that the “48-State Mural Competition” that Anna wins was anonymous. Otherwise she probably wouldn’t have had a chance at winning the award to paint the mural, since most of the paintings were created by big-name artists.

My research also included a day spent with an art conservationist to help me understand Morgan’s work, as well as a couple of wonderful trips to Edenton to learn about its people and history.

Q: You note that after your first visit to Edenton, North Carolina, you decided to set a novel there someday. What about the town made it a good setting for a book?

A: First of all, it’s beautiful, charming, and filled with history.

Second, it’s a small town with a post office built around the time that the murals were created. (The Edenton post office doesn’t have a mural, however).

Third, the racial makeup of the town, then and now, fit my storyline well.

And finally, I could simply see my characters there, on the streets and in the buildings. It felt like a natural fit. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The working title for my next book is The Dark End of the Street and the story is set in a nameless North Carolina town, again with a dual timeline—today and the ‘60s.

It involves the 1965 program to bring college students into the South to help register African American voters and it’s the personal story of one of those students and her current-day counterpart. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m thrilled with the response of early readers to Big Lies in a Small Town and I look forward to hearing from more of them!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Diane Chamberlain.

Jan. 16

Jan. 16, 1933: Susan Sontag born.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Q&A with Melissa Savage

Melissa Savage is the author of Nessie Quest, a new middle grade novel for kids that focuses on the Loch Ness Monster. She also has written Lemons and The Truth About Martians, and is a child and family therapist. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Nessie Quest, and for your character Ada Ru?

A: I definitely have to say that the students I meet during school events and writing workshops really inspired me to create the voice for Ada Ru.

I meet so many wonderful, aspiring young writers and I love talking with them about story and their process of coming up with characters, setting, voice and plot. 

I wanted to create an enthusiastic writer who sees story possibilities wherever she looks, just like the young writers I meet on my travels.

Q: Your novels have focused on Bigfoot, Martians, and the Loch Ness Monster. What intrigues you about these figures?

A: There was a time in history that we thought the giant squid was just a myth, then one washed up on shore and we knew they were real. Today, we have the technology to see them deep in the waters of their natural habitat. 

And that’s just one story of an elusive cryptid that’s been found. Every year, a list of new species comes out.  A list of species that scientist have found and didn’t know existed on our planet. 

I find that fascinating and love sharing this with kids when I travel for events. 

That’s what makes the subject of cryptozoology so interesting to me, as well as the mystery of it all. It really asks the question, what might we find next? I suppose anything is possible.

Q: This novel takes place in Scotland. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I see setting as a character in itself, so for me, setting is very important. I learned in my writing courses that setting can enhance your story just as any other supporting character can. 

In my first book, Lemons, Willow Creek played a very important part in the story because it is a real town and it truly is considered the Bigfoot capital of the world.

First, there are hundreds of logged sightings in the area and second, it is very near Bluff Creek where the first image of Bigfoot was filmed (the Patterson/Gimlin film). 

Similarly, Fort Augustus, which is located along the banks of the Loch Ness in Scotland, was equally important to my new book Nessie Quest. 

There were so many interesting people I was fortunate to meet while I was there, many of whom truly believe there is an elusive cryptid beneath the deep, dark waters of the loch. 

Many own tour boats or have a store or museum near the loch where they share the stories they’ve collected over the years and even some trinkets you can take home with you to remember your close encounter.

Q: You write that your mother inspired the character Hammy Bean. Can you say more about that, and about how you researched blindness to write this book? 

A: My mom is quite an inspirational person in all she has accomplished in her life and it was truly an honor to create this character and learn more about her in the process. 

As I researched this book, all those that I spoke with in the blind and visually impaired community were integral in helping me make this character as real as possible. 

This research included learning more about the use of equipment and technology available today, how the community navigates their surroundings, their thoughts about feeling marginalized and mostly, their desire to belong and be “seen” for their abilities and not their disability. 

In my author’s note in the book, I write about the community’s request for a flesh and blood character and not a superhero and I tried to accomplish that. 

At the same time, to overcome such adversity and accomplish so much all without sight is truly inspirational.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Just this fall, I’m thrilled to say that I sold my fourth middle grade novel to the same editorial team at Penguin Random House’s Crown Books for Young Readers. 

I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work with the same editorial team for all four books. It’s been an amazing group and I’m incredibly grateful to them for their continued support. 

The new book is tentatively called Karma Moon: Ghost Hunter. It’s a modern day story about 12-year-old Karma Moon who struggles with anxiety. 

She and her dad, a documentary film maker, are contacted by Netflix and given a contract for their biggest docuseries project to date … a ghost hunting show. This is a challenge for Karma Moon’s what-ifs, but it’s her dad’s big break and for everything in her life to fall in line, they must capture a ghost on film. 

Her dad assigns her to the role of top researcher for the project and she has to find a way to conquer her what-ifs to make it happen.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For the very first time, I will be incorporating some of my own art in my next middle grade book. 

I’ve had the most amazing cover art illustrators for my first three books. Lydia Nichols created the American covers for Lemons, The Truth About Martians, and Nessie Quest, while Darron Parton created the covers for the U.K.’s version of Bigfoot, Tobin and Me and The Truth About Martians. 

In my newest middle grade, Karma Moon: Ghost Hunter, which is slated for spring of 2021, I have tried my hand at some doodle art illustrations for Karma Moon’s official ghost logbook which I’m very excited about. I was an art major a long, long time ago and I’m so very grateful that my team is affording me this opportunity. 

The main character, Karma Moon, is into everything woo-woo, including (but not limited to) fortune cookies, the reading of any and all signs, the power of crystals, any and every Snapple lid fact, and of course the almighty Magic Eight Ball. And she keeps track of it all in her ghost logbook.

Will Karma Moon find her ghost?  
Magic Eight Ball: Ask again later.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Melissa Savage.

Jan. 15

Jan. 15, 1929: Martin Luther King Jr. born.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Q&A with Megan Angelo

Megan Angelo, photo by Alison Conklin
Megan Angelo is the author of the new novel Followers. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Glamour. She lives in Pennsylvania.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Followers, and for your characters Orla, Floss, and Marlow?

A: The idea for Followers came about when I was writing in my journal, in cursive, and realized that my kids and grandkids probably won't be able to read my handwriting, since cursive isn't taught in schools anymore.

It felt like a very human way of thinking about the future, to me, kind of outside the sci-fi way we usually see the future treated in pop culture, and I thought it would be interesting to ground a whole book in that approach.

Orla came out of my experiences living in New York as a blogger and later a writer in entertainment journalism, and then Floss and Marlow came to me as the people on the other side of the equation, the other side of the red-carpet rope. 

Q: You write, "I wanted to write something that would look at the future through a different lens than sci-fi or dystopia uses." How would you describe the lens you chose?

A: I know there are some dystopian ideas and some sci-fi features in this novel, but I was really trying to think and write in the style of a historical novel, where everything is character-driven and, despite whatever robots and drones and crazy geopolitical things come up, all the stakes really hang on the connections between the people in the book.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I originally called the book Cursive, when I started working on it.

I took a Catapult seminar with Rufi Thorpe where all of us students workshopped the first chapter of a novel, and at some point during that course I said to everyone: "I actually think I want to change the title to Followers—what do you guys think?" And everyone was like: well, obviously!

I'm so happy with it as a title because I think it communicates to the reader, immediately, that we're going to get into this weird, of-the-moment phenomenon of caring how many strangers on the Internet listen to us.

But what I love about it is that it speaks to the other kind of follower, the kind our mothers told us not to be. Everything that happens to Orla happens as a result of her being intoxicated by, and going along with, a friend who is not a good influence on her.

Q: You write that since the 2016 election, "I'd regularly come up with an idea and squint at it on the page, thinking, 'Can I get away with this?' only to walk into the next room and see something like it was happening." How much did current events influence your future world?

A: Let's just say that current events—cyberattacks, the dehumanization of immigrants, ramped-up hostilities with other countries—encouraged me to go with my imagination.

I really do feel like the past four years have been an exercise in turning on the news and feeling that there's no bottom to what can go on in America right now.

So many things that once seemed crazy beyond the norm have—just happened. Just happened, and we go on with our days, and like... the coffee machine still works and the schools are still open, as if all of this is normal, but it's not normal.

And I think it's important to remember that even when we feel that we can't do much to stop cruelty and ignorance and invasiveness on a large scale, we can choose every day to reject the sensation that it's normal. Sometimes that's all you can do, and it is meaningful.

So, while I'm not big on hoping that any reader takes anything specific from the book—at the end of the day, it's just a story, and I'm not pushing a message—I do think that if you're reading parts of the book and feeling that they're outrageous, just remember that they are a good 60 percent less outrageous than they were when I wrote them a few years ago.

And if there are things that don't seem that outrageous, ask yourself what you would have thought of them five years ago.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on two new books, and three small children, and it will probably be 10 years before I can tell how well any of them are going!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! I am sick of talking about myself! So I'm going to take a second to recommend some new and upcoming books I love.

Tarryn Fisher's The Wives is a thriller that will gut you like a fish.

Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age is one HUNDRED percent deserving of the amazing hype it's getting—I hid from my kids in a room with it for hours on end.

The characters in Gabriel Bump's Everywhere You Don't Belong are so vivid and alive, it's like you can hear all their hearts beating at once as soon as you open the book.

And Ada Calhoun's Why We Can't Sleep is a comfort, a call to action, a beautifully written and necessary validation of the female experience.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb