Friday, April 25, 2014

Q&A with children's author Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming is the author of many books for children, including most recently The Family Romanov, Papa's Mechanical Fish, On the Day I Died, Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Splash!, and Oh, No! She writes biographies, historical picture books, novels, and other picture books. She is based in Chicago.

Q: How do you pick the subjects of your biographies?

A: I choose biographical subjects with whom I already feel a personal connection. I emphasis the word because I'm interested in the emotions their lives evoke in me.  

Let me give you an example: During my sophomore year in high school, on our way back from the homecoming dance, my boyfriend of three whole weeks – Doug Cougill – broke up with me; dumped me for another girl he’d actually spent most of the evening dancing with. I was devastated.

Still wearing my wrist corsage and my farm chic gunney sack dress I’d bought off the shelf at Nordstrom’s (this was 1978, after all) I flung myself onto the soft and sobbed out my anguish. 

Then I waited for my mother to share a similar story of rejection from her past, one that would reflect my own emotions, one that would comfort me in the way of that age old adage – misery loves company.

Instead, my mother told me this unexpected story. It was July 3, 1937 and my mother – fourteen at the time – was listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio when an announcer broke in with stunning news. World famous female pilot, Amelia Earhart, was missing. En route to Howland Island from New Guinea she had simply vanished. Authorities believed she had gone down at sea.

My mother couldn’t believe it. It seemed impossible. Amelia Earhart was the woman who could do anything – a larger-than-life role model who symbolized endless female possibilities. She couldn’t be lost at sea. She couldn’t!
Devastated, my mother stumbled down to the beach – she lived in a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan at the time. And she stood there in the sand, gazing up into the cloudless blue sky. Watching. Waiting. Willing Amelia home. 

She was convinced that if she stood there long enough, she would eventually spy the flyer winging her way to safety. She just knew she would. But Amelia didn’t come. And she didn’t come. She never came.

And even though more than 40 years had passed between the day Amelia had gone missing and the day Doug Cougill threw me over for another girl, I could still hear the sadness, and the longing in my mother’s voice.

This is why I wrote Amelia Lost – a book a long time in the coming. Amelia had broken my mother’s heart. And in turn – through my mother’s memories – she had broken mine. And broken hearts make for good books.

Q: What are some of the things you've learned that have surprised you most as you've researched your nonfiction books?

A: Big question! Research is always surprising, isn't it? Every time I've tackled a biography, I've ended up discovering something astonishing.  

So I'll tell you a story about my newest biography, The Family Romanov. When I began I the project I had this misguided idea that I would write a short, breezy story about Anastasia.  Middle schoolers, I've learned over the years, are fascinated by her.

Research quickly proved, however, that she was incredibly dull.  She wasn't especially bright. She didn' t have any interesting hobbies. She had few precocious childhood adventures. In truth, I was surprised. I'd just assumed that the youngest daughter of the richest man in the world would be interesting. 
Nope. So I expanded my focus to include all five of the Romanov children. And guess what?  Research quickly proved that all five were all incredibly dull. They weren't especially bright. They didn't have any interesting hobbies. They had few precocious childhood adventures.

So I expanded my research to include their parents, too. And things grew more interesting -- crazy monks, genetic diseases, royal romance. But now a question sprang up. A nagging question. 

How did this happen? How did this rich, splendidly privileged, and yes, beautiful family end up in that Siberian cellar? Something had gone terribly wrong. But what? What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas and Alexandra could have done to change their fate?

That question, which sprang from my research, began my research. And I eventually found a story much more meaningful than the one I thought I was going to write.

Now I was not only researching the Romanov family, but looking beyond their fairy-tale existence to examine the lives of lower class Russians – peasants and workers, revolutionaries and soldiers. 

The result?  A book that is essentially three stories in one – the first is an intimate look at the Romanovs themselves, the second follows the sweep of the revolution from worker strikes of 1905 to the rise of Lenin; the third – conveyed in their own words – is the personal stories of the men and women whose struggle for a better life directly affected the Romanovs’ fate.

And all because of the surprising discovery that Anastasia Romanova was a bit… um... boring.

Q: You've written for older and younger children, and have written fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a preference, and are you usually working on more than one book at a time?

A: I really don't have a preference between fiction and nonfiction/ younger grade and older grade. I am, after all, a storyteller. Some of those stories are true. Others are not.

Besides, I believe writing both forms keeps me balanced. When I was in the blackest moments of the Romanov story -- standing in the trenches beside those starving, Russian soldiers during World War I, or following the family to their deaths in that Siberian basement -- it was a relief to be able to turn to an entirely different genre. Nothing helps a person creep from the darkness faster than writing a story for preschoolers about bed-hogging farm animals.

Yes, I always work on more than one project at a time. Right now on my desk, I'm wrestling with the first draft of a new biography about Buffalo Bill Cody. I'm also writing a funny (I hope) middle-grade novel about a 5th grade boy whose family is on a reality show. And I'm in the final throes of a new picture book. 

Q: Are there any authors who have especially inspired you?

A: William Steig. His stories are not only funny, they’re heartwarming. And his language is sophisticated and lovely. He never talks down to his audience. He understood, as Mo Willems always says, that "kids aren't stupid, they're just short." Oh, and Steig's illustrations are pretty great, too.

I always think that if I could write just one story as perfect as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, I could die satisfied.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think I've probably said way too much already.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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