Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Q&A with Martha Freeman

Martha Freeman is the author of more than two dozen books for children. She has collaborated with astronaut Mark Kelly on the Astrotwins series, Astrotwins--Project Blastoff and now Astrotwins--Project Rescue, and her other books include the new middle-grade novel Strudel's Forever Home and The Orphan and the Mouse. She lives in Philadelphia.

Q: How did you end up collaborating with Mark Kelly on the Astrotwins books, and what is the writing process like between you?

A: Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster knew me from other projects and asked me if I would be interested in the collaboration.

I have been interested in space from an early age. My dad gave me a telescope when I was very young and together we would look at the stars and planets. I am old enough to remember not only the moon landing in 1969 but (barely) the Gemini and Mercury missions of the '60s. And I remember Star Trek and Lost in Space on TV, too.

It was a forward-looking and exciting time. The astronauts were real American heroes in an uncomplicated way that seems hard to imagine now. So -- long story short -- I jumped at the chance. 

As for the writing process, Mark Kelly is the brains of the operation. He provided the plot, the voice and the true-life details about his and Scott's childhood.

I did most of the word-by-word stuff -- I call it putting in the commas -- while he continually made sure the manuscript stayed true to his vision with his suggestions, revisions and corrections.

I also did a lot of research on my own. Mark is a very busy guy, and I didn't want to drive him crazy with questions about details that I could learn from other sources.

Also, by the time Mark became an astronaut in the 1990s, space technology -- especially computing power and spaceship design -- was very different than it had been in the ‘70s when the books take place.

I still have the 11 books I read for background on a shelf in my living room -- many astronaut memoirs as well as some more general science reading. And I lived on the NASA website, which is terrific, as well as a few others. I also visited the Air & Space Museum (again), which is just such a fun thing to do.
Q: Did you know when you were working on the first Astrotwins book that it would become a series?

A: Yes, it was always envisioned as a series.

Q: You also have another new book out this spring: Strudel’s Forever Home. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A: Strudel is the story of a dachshund who ends up in a shelter after a calamity of some sort that he can't quite remember. I was inspired when I heard a news story on the radio about kids reading to shelter animals, both to keep the animals company and to help the kids improve their reading. Great idea, I thought!

Another inspiration was a young man's suggestion during a school visit that I write about my childhood dachshund, Max. Once he said it, I couldn't imagine why I hadn't done it already.

At the time, I had just written The Orphan and the Mouse, which is told from rotating points of view -- animals included. So I thought I sort of had the animal persona down.

As for the South Philadelphia setting, I had recently moved to South Philadelphia when I began writing, and like Strudel I was exploring the neighborhood, so it made sense. Also, compared to New York, Philadelphia doesn't get that much love in contemporary children's books.

Q: You’ve written for various age groups. Do you have a preference?

A: I am always trying to write simpler books for younger kids, and it rarely works. My plots have a way of getting out of control. I am in awe of Mo Willems, Jon Klassen, Alice Schertle and all the authors who can tell a grand story at picturebook length.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on the third book in the Secret Cookie Club series for 8-10 year olds (also from Paula Wiseman). Four girls meet at summer camp and keep the friendship going by sending one another cookies during the school year.

It's based super loosely on my own summer camp experience -- but updated. The girls are very different from one another but (thanks in part to cookies) they get along famously. The books are a little happier than life perhaps, but also funny, and they have a lot of heart if I do say so myself. 

I'm also trying to come up with a proposal for another book with a science/technology component. I have had so much fun with the Astrotwins books that I'd like to try something in the same spirit but on my own. This time it won't be space.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I've actually written 27 books for children, among them The First Kids series, which take place in the White House and star the kids of the first woman president, and the Chickadee Court mysteries, which feature an ace detective cat named Luau.

The First Kids books each have an afterword about some aspect of White House history. Those were fun to write. I used to be a reporter, and somewhere inside a nonfiction writer struggles to get out. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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