Thursday, January 4, 2018

Q&A with Martha Freeman

Martha Freeman is the author of Zap, a new novel for kids. Her many other books include Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question and the Secret Cookie Club series. She lives in Philadelphia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Zap?

A: My engineer friend Anthony mentioned a friend of his who was fascinated with the power grid. This made me realize how little I knew about the subject myself. There happened to be a new book about the grid by Ted Koppel, so I read that – and was alarmed by the dangerous scenarios he described. I wanted to know more, and writing a book is a good excuse to do research.

Q: You based your character Luis on a real-life person. What made you decide he would make a good fictional character?

A: As with all my books, there was more than one inspiration. For Zap, my friend Luis’s life story was another. Luis’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua. They worked very hard when they came to New Jersey, and young Luis – born in the USA -- was left to his own devices at times.

He grew up in a tough town and had some harrowing experiences, stuff I had a hard time even imagining. He told me once it was a toss-up as to whether he’d end up on the streets or go to college and make something of himself.

Spoiler alert: He went to college.

Luis also told me he wished he’d had more role models in books when he was a kid. In a way, Zap is a book for the kid Luis (now 29) used to be.

As a novelist, I write about all kinds of people who aren’t me. I’ve even written from the point of view of a dog and a mouse. In every case, I use my imagination to get into the heads of my characters – and I do research as well. Because Luis is a real person with his own life story, I was extra scrupulous and asked him a whole lot of questions.

The book includes a letter from the real Luis and pictures of him in the appendix.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from this story?

A: My top priority is always that kids read the book from beginning to end and find living in someone else’s head compelling.

With Zap, I also hope they learn something about the science and engineering that underlies technology we all take for granted. After the effects of hurricanes on the electric grids of Puerto Rico and Texas this year, the story seems especially relevant.

Finally, I’m a big fan of a book called All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, which is a fictionalized account of a 20th century politician named Huey Long. Young readers won’t know that reference, but I hope maybe Zap will make them think a little more about how government works, and about our responsibilities as citizens.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write this?

A: Oh my gosh – so much! I read extensively on the power grid and electricity in general. Ask me anything about Michael Faraday. I also needed to get up to speed (as best I could) on hacking, so I read a book and several articles about the Stuxnet worm and how it was used to take down an Iranian manufacturing operation.

The book takes place in a town similar to Camden, New Jersey, where the real Luis grew up. So I drove around Camden and researched its history, too.

As always, I leaned on my friends (like Anthony and Luis) to answer questions.

Because there is a big nonfiction component to the book, there’s a lot of information at the end – questions and answers, a glossary, a bibliography. I hope kids and teachers will take advantage of it. I enjoyed writing that part, too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Look for If You’re Going to a March, my nonfiction how-to picturebook about kids at political protests, coming from Sterling in the fall. It’s a lot of fun to see the illustrations (by Violet Kim) bring the book to life.

Do you know the tag line from Monty Python? “And now for something completely different….” Sometimes my work feels like that. I am revising a re-telling of The Three Bears in which Goldilocks’ stay is much extended, and Baby Bear feels resentful. It’s hilarious. At least, my editor and I think it is.

Also, I just finished the manuscript for what will be my first nonfiction book for young readers. I call it Curious Kids – 20 Stories of Girls Who Grew Up to Be Celebrated Scientists, but the publisher isn’t so sure about the title. It will be illustrated, so it’s not due till spring 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I know both Anthony and Luis because we run together. Or, more accurately, I run along behind them. I am slow but tenacious, and running has been very important to me over the years. In fact, running and writing are similar – one foot in front of the other, one word and then the next. With either one, you sometimes have to slog it out.

Also, Luis now volunteers as a coach with Students Run, a program in Camden, New Jersey, where he grew up. That’s his team in the photo. He’s in the middle in the back.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Martha Freeman.

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