Saturday, December 5, 2020

Q&A with Constance Van Hoven

 

Constance Van Hoven is the author of the new children's picture book Rare & Blue: Finding Nature's Treasures. She lives in Montana.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Rare & Blue, and for the species you include in the book?

 

A: I got the idea for this book while on a trip to Maine. When I spotted a blue lobster on the wall in a maritime museum I wondered what else in the world is rare and blue.

 

Also, around that time I read an article about the history of “Earthrise,” the iconic photo taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. The photo highlighted the captivating beauty of our blue planet as a whole. It became “the most influential environmental photo ever taken.” I knew that view from space would be the ending for my book; I just needed to fill in the rest with unique blue species that live on the blue planet.

 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

 

A: I did research online, at the library, and in person at national parks, nature preserves, aquariums, zoos, etc. And I contacted biologists as well. I wanted there to be progression of size, diversity of habitat, and a variety of species represented in the book.

 

Eventually, there were items that I had to leave out for an assortment of reasons. The gorgeous and interesting blue milk mushroom, for example. After much thought, I decided that I didn’t want to encourage eating wild mushrooms without having expert help for identification and I didn’t want to encourage kids to pick wild mushrooms on private property without permission. Too much to explain in the limited space of a picture book.

 

Over a period of years, I learned that there are more rare and blue species on the planet than I ever imagined. I was not at a loss for things to put in my book! Which leads to the point that “rare” doesn’t only mean few in number, it can also mean “uncommonly good or remarkable.” While the species in my book are mostly few in numbers; I like to think they are all remarkable.

 

Q: The Kirkus review of the book calls it "A visually appealing, informative peek at some of nature’s rare treasures, with a strong ecological subtext." What do you hope kids learn about ecology from the book?

 

A: First, I hope to encourage kids to get out and see the treasures of the natural world for themselves. And then to realize that species are rapidly declining worldwide, they need protection from habitat destruction.

 

Like the much-quoted saying from environmentalist Baba Dioum: “We will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

 

Q: What do you think Alan Marks's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: Alan’s illustrations have such interesting perspective, which adds to the treasure hunt theme of the book. And his color palette of the many shades of blue is luscious.

 

I am especially fond of the blue whale and the bison in the big bluestem prairie grass—he really captured the majesty of these animals. Though, I also love the vibrant blue lobster because it was the inspiration for the book.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on several nonfiction picture book manuscripts. I’m enjoying getting to know the animals and birds of Montana where we moved several years ago. We have grandkids here, so we enjoy getting out and exploring with them.

 

Since Covid hit and I’ve been spending more time close to home, I’ve started to write a weekly Facebook post. It started as a countdown to the delayed publication of Rare and Blue with short essays on things that are rare and blue, but not in the book.

 

Now, it’s a mish-mash of more rare and blue items, plus things that have caught my eye and topics that tug at my heart. It’s become an exercise that I look forward to; it keeps me writing when the distractions of the world loom heavy.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I wish that my parents were still living so they could see the finished book. It was a work in progress for many years that went through several versions. I started working on it though, when they were both still living.

 

They would especially have loved the illustrations of some of their favorite things. My mom was a birder; I think she always wanted to see a Cerulean warbler. My dad grew up on a farm in Nebraska, he was well aware of the implications of the loss of the tall grass prairie.

 

I’m happy that they passed down their love for the natural world to me and I’m trying to do the same for my children and grandchildren, and the readers of Rare and Blue.

 

Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Deborah! Into the wild blue yonder! 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nathan Elias

 

Photo by A. Milano

Nathan Elias is the author of the new story collection The Reincarnations. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including PANK and Entropy. He lives in Nashville.

 

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?

 

A: I began writing the stories for The Reincarnations in 2014. Up until that point—from 2011 to 2014, respectively—most of my creative writing had been screenplays, with which I had some small successes.

 

However, I sporadically tried to write short stories. Usually they were not particularly good.

 

In 2014, after having left my hometown of Toledo, Ohio for Los Angeles in 2012, I tried my hand at short stories again. This time around, I felt I was striking a nerve.

 

Thus came “Right Now at This Very Moment”, which was the first piece of prose where I had found what I suppose would be my voice in fiction writing. It was truly the first authentic piece of fiction I had written. I kept trying to write stories whilst working on screenwriting for the better part of the next two years, but it never amounted to much.

 

In 2015 I started to gravitate toward the idea that perhaps I did not want to work on films and screenplays anymore, that I’d rather devote my energy to writing fiction. In 2016 I was accepted to the MFA program at Antioch University, and, with much studying and tutelage, I began making strides with my prose.

 

Many of the stories in The Reincarnations were composed while I was in the MFA program; one was written before, and two after. So, this collection took from 2014 to 2019 to complete.

 

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?

 

A: Arranging the order in which the stories appear was no easy task. In fact, I spent hours upon hours over several weeks—nay, months—considering the best (and only) order.

 

When arranging stories in a collection of fiction, one must consider how one tone affects another. How one theme affects another. How one plot or narrator or point of view coalesces with all of the others.

 

Some of the stories are lighter, some are darker. It was a balancing act to ensure that the reader doesn’t get bombarded with dark stories (not that the stories are depressing, but some certainly grapple with darker material than others) in one portion of the book.

 

Additionally, some—but not all—of the stories are connected, meaning they share a small cast of characters but are not necessarily related sequentially. It was important to stagger these stories throughout the collection so that they didn’t appear back-to-back; I wanted the reader to remember these characters, but not to think that it was a book about these characters (not a novel in stories, for example).

 

Additionally, many stories in the book deal with speculative elements whereas others do not. I wanted to alternate between the speculative stories and the more traditional stories so that the book would straddle genre norms.

 

The more I toyed with the arrangement of the stories, the clearer it became that there was only one true arrangement. It might have taken me a while to put this puzzle together, but the end result is a purposefully orchestrated symphony of characters, themes, ideas, and feelings that must be read from beginning to end in order to fully experience the emotional resonance I set out to create.

 

With all of this said, there is an important note I would want readers to know, and I will steal it directly from the preface of a book I admire very much (Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor, Sarabande Books, 2014): “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.”

 

Q: How was the book's title--also the title of the last story--chosen, and what does it signify for you?

 

A: Early on in the writing process, I kept a list of stories I wanted to write—ideas that came to me and continued to resonate in my heart and mind. One of these ideas pertained to a sick little girl who had been introduced to the concept of reincarnation.

 

This story, "The Reincarnations", was the last story to be written for the collection. However, it was on my docket as “to be written” for a long time, and I soon realized I had subconsciously infused the theme of reincarnation into each of the stories.

 

Originally, the manuscript had a completely different title—The Cost of Love. The original title sprang to my mind in 2015 when I started taking story writing seriously.

 

There was a thought, like a bolt of lightning, that entered my head: The cost of love is the pain of loss. This thought gave birth to most of the stories in The Reincarnations, and it is also a major theme running through the book.

 

But The Cost of Love was a very different book, and it contained different stories—ones I chose to never show anyone, or ones that I didn’t feel belonged in a collection. Eventually, the manuscript took on a new shape and tone than the one I had originally set out to write. Thus, The Reincarnations came into existence.

 

Very recently, my publisher, Montag Press, informed me that one of the stories in The Reincarnations had been chosen to be adapted into a one-act play by the playwright David L. Williams. The story he chose to adapt is called “The Al Capone Suite”, and this is the story where I implanted the sentence “The cost of love is the pain of loss.”

 

Last week my publisher sent me David’s adaptation, and he decided to title it The Cost of Love. I found this very serendipitous because I never shared with anyone my book’s original title. I believe that things have a way of coming full circle, and this is a prime example.

 

To me, the title The Reincarnations signifies the ideas of becoming, of ever-changing, of newness, and returning anew. Each of the characters in the book experience some form of reincarnation—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. Sometimes in the form of personal evolution, sometimes in the form of magical realism.

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

 

A: Quite simply, I want readers to feel. In the case of this book: Heartache. Longing. Yearning.

 

There is a Japanese phrase to which I am partial: Mono no aware. The best definition for this that I have found is: the ephemeral nature of beauty – the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Montag Press is also publishing my debut novel, Coil Quake Rift, which is about love, loss, and alternate realities after an earthquake in Los Angeles. I anticipate getting notes from the editor in approximately one month, and then we will begin the editorial process before getting the book ready for publication in early 2021.

 

However, my creative writing has taken a much different turn in the past year and a half. When I began submitting Coil Quake Rift to publishers in 2019, I started working on a young adult novel, a complete change in direction. I wrote three drafts of that book—I plan on five or six drafts—and I have two other ideas for YA novels that are fully crystalized in my mind but that I have not yet started writing.

 

After Coil Quake Rift is out in the world, I plan on committing to these young adult books and seeing where they take me.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: You can purchase your copy of The Reincarnations: Stories here:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1940233836

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 5

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 5, 1830: Christina Rossetti born.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Q&A with Dianne K. Salerni

 


Dianne K. Salerni is the author of Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her many other books include The Eighth Day series. A former teacher, she lives in Pennsylvania.

 

Q: You note that you were inspired to write this book after reading an article about Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt. Can you say more about how did you come up with the idea for Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts?

 

A: I had been toying for a long time with an idea for an alternate reality where ghosts were real and so prevalent that a scientific discipline had developed to “diagnose” them into categories: Friendly, Unaware, or Vengeful. I wanted to write a story that centered around a ghost that was misdiagnosed and more dangerous than it first appeared. 

 

Originally, I tried to write a mystery set in the modern world with characters I completely invented, but it just wasn't working.

 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

 

A: I read Eleanor Roosevelt's autobiography, along with several biographies of Alice and the Roosevelt family in general. I also did research specific to the time period -- the 1890s -- so I could flesh out the historical setting as much as possible.

 

The strangest thing I did was to take a class in ghost hunting from my local community college. Since I am a big skeptic, I certainly didn't expect to encounter anything supernatural in our "field trips."

 

To my shock and surprise, I came home with an unexplained voice on one of my recordings! I made a video about my experience, which can be found on YouTube: https://youtu.be/VQqJvM-4bSs

 

Q: As you were writing the book, what did you see as the right blend between history and fiction?

 

A: Whenever possible, I used actual historical events. Alice Roosevelt was sent to her aunt's house in 1898 because she was misbehaving and her stepmother couldn't handle her. Shortly after her arrival, the U.S.S. Maine did blow up in Havana's harbor and her uncle was sent to investigate. Eleanor lived nearby, and she and Alice did not get along.

 

I used an anecdote that Eleanor mentioned in her autobiography about family trips to Cooper Bluff on Oyster Bay during a key event in my fictional story. Nellie Bly was a real investigative reporter, and Nikola Tesla actually did invent something that he believed was transmitting the voices of spirits.

 

There was so much rich and interesting history already there for the taking. All I had to do was add the ghosts!

 

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

 

A: I hope that my story helps kids connect more with the famous people they read about in history. Eleanor Roosevelt may be remembered now as a great philanthropist and beloved First Lady, but she started out as a lonely, awkward young girl who had trouble relating to her peers (and who was kind of emotionally abused by her mother).

 

I'd like to think that lonely, awkward-feeling girls of today might read this and think, If Eleanor could do this, so could I.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am finishing up work on my next novel, Jadie in Five Dimensions, which will be published in the fall of 2021. It's a science fiction adventure inspired by the works of William Sleator and the Victorian novella Flatland.

 

My protagonist Jadie is a girl who was abandoned as an infant and rescued from certain death by hyper-intelligent beings from the fourth dimension. Now 13 years-old, Jadie serves as an Agent for those four-dimensional beings, performing missions designed to save the planet.

 

However, during one of her missions, she discovers that her origin story is a lie, her birth family has suffered multiple tragedies engineered from 4-space, and the time has come to uncover the conspiracies surrounding her life. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I've been publishing books for kids and teens for 10 years now, starting with We Hear the Dead in 2010, but until this year, there have never been any audiobooks made from my novels.

 

Within the span of a few months this year, I suddenly have four audiobooks produced by the wonderful company Recorded Books. Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts is available as an audiobook, with two voice actresses reading the parts of Eleanor and Alice, and all three books in my Eighth Day fantasy series are now available.

 

It was very exciting to hear my books read aloud by professional readers for the first time!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Susan B. Katz

 


Susan B. Katz is the author of the new children's picture book Meditation Station. Her many other books include The Story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 

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

 

A: For about 20 years, I’ve been attending meditation retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center with teachers like Sylvia Boorstein. A few years ago, during a dharma talk, Sylvia was talking about letting thoughts pass like clouds.

 

As a children’s book author, I decided to drive that concept home for kids. The idea of a train station, and play on words with how to calm our racing “train of thoughts” came to me. Then, the title Meditation Station (which I love because it rhymes) came to me.

 

I’d worked with Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior monks while I was a Strategic Partner Manager at Facebook and knew one of the women on his team who later joined Shambhala as an editor. I pitched the manuscript to her and she loved it.

 

Q: What are some of the best methods to teach kids mindfulness?

 

A: Mindfulness means being present in the current moment, whether that is washing dishes, eating, walking, or talking to someone.

 

Some of the simplest strategies to share with children are:

 

1) Belly Breathing—put your hand on your belly and breathing in for 3 counts, filling your belly with air like a balloon. Pause for one second before exhaling, then exhale for five seconds. It is important that the exhale be longer than the inhale because research shows that calms the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and lowers our heart rate. In short, it helps decrease stress levels;


2) Say it to the Ceiling: Naming our feelings and becoming friends with them can lower what we, as educators, call “the affective filter.” That is, when we befriend our emotions, our ability to overcome anxiety, and willingness to take risks, increases. I tell children to say to the ceiling (or, with shy kids–whisper it to their elbow) “Hello, Fear, my friend!” Or “Good morning, Sir Sadness.”  Boredom is a big one. “Oh you’re here again, Boredom Buddy, welcome back!” It may sound silly but, half the battle is teaching children to name and acknowledge their feelings. No judgment or resistance. The more children become aware of what they’re feeling, the better their life skills will be in facing that emotion head on and shifting their experience. Befriend your feelings and they will have less power over you;

 

3) “Stay in the Station” This one is directly from my book, Meditation Station. Tell your child to imagine that they’re in a train station. When a thought comes into their mind and tries to pull them down the track, just watch it pass. Wave to the train/thought. Feel the floor beneath them to ground themselves. Breathe deeply in and out. Touch their fingers to each other. Wiggle their toes. Anchoring yourself in your body and breath allows you to simply witness your train of thoughts racing down the track without going with them. Again, saying hello (and goodbye) to a thought is helpful. For example: “Hi daydream about playing at the park later.” (Or, let’s be real: “Hey, Fortnite”–insert whatever video game your kid plays);

 

4) Strike a Pose - Children naturally need movement. One advantage to being home during this time is that they have more opportunities to get up, move around and play. But, when they are expected to sit, staring at a device, for extended periods of time, it’s crucial to get them up and moving. Children may be familiar with basic yoga poses and you can show them some balance or stretching exercises to add to their repertoire. Many of these movements are named after animals, which makes them even more engaging. Can they balance like a tree and make branches with their arms? How about wrapping their arms for eagle pose? There’s cat/cow, dolphin, and cobra. The list goes on. A quick yoga/stretching “brain break” can help kids refocus.

 

5) Can you feel me? Encouraging kids to tune into their five senses brings them back to the present moment. No need to worry about that quiz tomorrow (I mean, do study, but don’t fret) or think about the embarrassing Zoom moment from yesterday. Right outside, in your own backyard or a local park, do a scavenger hunt of nature sounds. Play “I Spy” around the room to get their eyes off the screen and interact with the family. Can they close their eyes and guess what familiar smell is in a jar (or on a cotton ball?) Easy ones are: cinnamon, pine, chocolate or popcorn. For taste, place an M&M or raisin in their hand. Have them smell it, but wait to taste it. Then, ask them to place it in their mouth and just let the flavors be absorbed by their taste buds. Chew slowly, savoring the taste. Mindfulness demands that we pause, and be with each part of the experience. When I was a child, one of my friend’s mom’s used to make sensory bags when we watched The Wizard of Oz. She’d place cold, wet spaghetti in a bag and say it was the witch’s hair. You can cover containers with tinfoil and fill them with sand, beads, or Play-doh. Kids can reach in and guess what they’re feeling. If that is too creepy for your child, putting shaving cream or Slime directly on a garbage bag, on the floor or table, and allowing them to draw or write helps improve their small-motor skills.

 

Q: Especially in these difficult times, what do you hope people take away from the book?

 

A: Two things:

 

1) The old adage “this too shall pass” is hard to remember these days when Covid-19 isn’t passing, distance learning has been in place for almost a year, etc. I want people to think about the concept of impermanence. Passing trains are like thoughts or emotions; they only last so long. The only constant is change.

 

2) My meditation teacher often says: “the cause of suffering is wanting things to be other than they are.” There’s an element of acceptance in that. We can get so distracted with worry, anxiety, or sadness and anger. Those emotions are usually associated with past or future. We want to “stay in the station” or remain in the present moment, with our breath and in our body. Our breath is always with us and, wherever we go, we can return to our breath. Meditation has helped me in trying times and I want kids (and adults) to find a way to let meditation—paying attention to the current moment and staying with the breath—help them cope with the current chaos.

 

Q: What do you think Anait Semirdzhyan's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: So much! The bear, elephant, fox, and other animals are warm, cuddly, and kid-friendly. She did such an exquisite job bringing my words to life. Her palette and calming watercolor illustrations bring visceral, visual soothing tones to the book. I am thrilled that we were paired on Meditation Station!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: This year alone, I have eight books coming out. Seven of those are biographies in The Story of series: RBG, Frida, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Fred Rogers, and Gandhi. I just started writing another book in the “sister series.”

 

Next year, I have 15—yes, 15 books coming out. Many of those are for the education market but a few are trade books like a book I have with Simon & Schuster coming out about the ocean. I’m super excited about that one!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Aside from my experience with meditation, I was a bilingual, National Board Certified Teacher for over 25 years. So I bring that element of expertise as an educator to my writing. When I write, I think about my hundreds of former students, my twin nephews and two nieces, and how the book will reach and resonate with them.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mark Binder

 

Mark Binder is the author of the novel The Groston Rules. He is a former editor of The Rhode Island Jewish Herald, and is a professional storyteller.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Groston Rules, and for your cast of characters?

 

A: After 20 years of writing primarily for children and families, I wanted to break out of my niche.

The Groston Rules is about a series of massive “fuck ups” and how the main characters deal with them and resolve them. "Team Bombshelter" is seven seniors at Ashby Bryson High School in the New England town of Groston.

 

Adam is the peacemaker, and a second-degree black belt. “Fat Charlie” is the overweight kid whose dad suffers a massive heart attack. Helen was born without crucial bones in her legs. Sean is the only son of divorced parents who can’t stand each other. Rover is a socially awkward computer geek. Jesús wants to be an artist, if he can ever get time away from his little siblings. Isaac is the narrator, who can’t seem to get into college to save his life.

 

I released the first iteration of The Groston Rules on Spotify, under the pen name of The Bark Minder Project. This identity, distanced from my safe and “kid friendly” image, allowed me to experiment and be as wrong-headed and possibly offensive as possible. I went so far as to title the audiobook The Fuck Ups.

 

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I don’t work from an outline. I create with what I call “intentional improvisation.” Usually, I know what I want to accomplish for a particular installment, but I’m not always sure what will come next. This keeps the material fresh and allows me to surprise myself.

 

And no, I didn’t know how it was going to end. I’m always amazed at the way my subconscious sets up the conclusions — though I do tweak and reinforce themes and ideas in revision.

 

Every week I would write and record a new installment/chapter. Because Spotify has an album-based catalog, each episode also got a new cover, which was a habit I continued even after we stopped the Spotify experiment.

I’ve found that the episodic and serialized nature ensures that the book hooks you at every opportunity. Creation over time generates layers and allows me to find depths that weren’t always obvious in the first drafts.

 

The first Spotify installment was released on New Year’s Eve 2018. After the first drafts of the book were completed, it began to morph. Revision always takes me longer than the first draft. For instance, was it really important for the book to begin with Chapter One, "New Year’s Eve"? Sort of. 

 

But now, the opening “Chapter Zero - Cut to the Chase” takes the reader almost to the end of the book. And after Chapter One comes “Sidetrack – New Year’s Day with Helen”, which breaks out of the first person narrative and adds dimensions to each of the other characters. (As a narrator, Isaac isn’t all-knowing. In fact, sometimes he can be downright blind.)

 

The book has actually been released three times. Once in 2018 as a long audio teaser, and just after COVID hit, in May 2020 as The Fuck Ups

 

As much as I loved that initial title, I found that I couldn’t actually talk about it to people without fear of alienating my old (and very young) readers. So we pulled it from production, and found the new (and final) title, The Groston Rules.

 

The last phase of the project, recording the complete final audiobook, is still in progress.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about the world of high school seniors?

A: The short version is that high school seniors fuck up on a regular basis, but if you cut them a break, and give them enough support and time they can solve their own damn problems.

 

I’m in awe of the intelligence, honesty and resourcefulness that high students can muster when left to their own devices. They are resilient and inventive. They can also make massive and stupid mistakes.


One of the problems of today is that these mistakes can cripple their lives. I think that they should be given a chance to right their wrongs and forge their own paths.

 

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

 

A: I’ve been reading a lot of books by Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne recently. The Harry Dresden series and the Iron Druid series are both fun. 


Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Three projects simultaneously:


- Recording the audio book for The Groston Rules — which is far more challenging than the short-form audiobooks I’ve done in the past;


- Writing a serialization called Are We Done Yet? about several families in Providence, R.I., during this pandemic;


- Promoting Groston and my other books and performances in an effort to make a living.


- Wait - I’ve also got a play that’s in workshop called The Race about two men vying for a job in a computerized zoomspace interview.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The Groston Rules was written for adults, but the publishing industry says that any book about 17- and 18-year-olds must be YA.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mark Binder.

Dec. 4

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 4, 1835: Samuel Butler born.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Q&A with Avery Bishop

 


Avery Bishop is the author of the new novel Girl Gone Mad. Avery Bishop is a pseudonym for an author who has written more than a dozen novels.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Girl Gone Mad, and for your character Emily? 

 

A: Part of the answer lies in the fact that the title was actually chosen first, before I had even the slightest hint of what the overall story or characters would be (that's answered below). But once I did have the title, I ended up pursuing the pre-made cover section of one of the designers I use for my self-published work, and I found a cover that I really liked.

 

The design had a sort of Megan Abbott quality to it (for her US covers, at least), with what looked like a girl in a floral dress; her face was mostly cut off at the top of the cover, but it was clear that she was young, maybe high school age.

 

And so I ordered it with the title I'd come up with, thinking it would be good to have once I eventually wrote the book (at that time I'd planned to self-publish it), but now I needed to come up with an idea. I knew I wanted to write an adult suspense novel, but the cover lent itself more to YA.

 

And so I thought: Hmm, what if the story covers both? What if there's a present-day story that focuses on the main character and her friends when they're adults, but there's a backstory from when they were younger? 

 

Sometimes ideas come out of nowhere fully formed, and sometimes I let half-formed ideas sit and congeal for a while.

 

As it's been a couple of years now, I forget exactly what the initial idea was outside just the title, but once I realized that the story would be about a group of women who used to be best friends and how in middle school they bullied the new girl to her breaking point and so now the new girl was maybe or maybe not back for revenge, things started to progress from there. 

 

For a long time I worked in the mental health field, so it was pretty natural to make the protagonist a therapist. Emily's character grew from there, how her guilt from what happened had directed her life and closed her off from others, and so when the mysterious deaths start to occur and she thinks Grace Farmer is involved, she's driven to learn the truth.

 

Q: There are various references in the book to Lord of the Flies. Do you see this as a female version of that story? 

 

A: Yes and no. Yes because there are certainly themes that lend themselves to Lord of the Flies, but no because I don't want to act like it's even a close comparison. I think Lord of the Flies is a masterpiece, while my novel ... well, it's a suspense romp. It's meant to be read for fun.

 

Sure, there are underlying themes, and if readers come away with certain emotional reactions, great, but I definitely didn't set out to write anything too heavy-handed. 

 

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

 

A: Many years ago I was in NYC for a business trip and I met up with a friend of mine who works in marketing at a major publishing house.

 

We got drinks at a bar near the Ed Sullivan Theater, and we talked about books and movies and at one point we discussed the ongoing trend of suspense novels that had "girl" in the title and I made some crack about how I'd always wanted to write a book like that and my friend turned to me all serious and said, "You should."

 

So that interaction of course stuck in the back of my mind, and one day the title Girl Gone Mad came to me, and I checked Amazon to see if it had been used before and was pretty shocked to learn that it hadn't. 

 

And, well, the novel eventually evolved from there. After all, it wasn't just writing a book and sticking "girl" somewhere in the title; I wanted to make sure the book earned the title.

 

Plus, I like how the "girl" and “mad” in the title can be read in different ways. Does the "girl" signify Grace Farmer, who was bullied in middle school and who may or may not be back for revenge because she’s gone “mad”? Or does it signify Emily, who through the book starts to question what is real? 

 

Q: You've written many other novels, but you chose to write this novel under a pseudonym. Why did you make that choice? 

 

A: Most of the books I've published have been straight-up thrillers. There was a literary novel I'd published many years back, what is probably one of my favorite of the novels I’ve written, and it's probably the worst-selling of all my titles.

 

Why? Well, I believe because it's a novel unlike my other novels, and so most of my readership isn't interested in it. I'm certainly not the first writer to use a pen name when dabbling in another genre.

 

Of course, as suspense and thriller are very closely aligned, I probably could have published Girl Gone Mad under my name but felt it was best to let this novel stand by itself. Plus, it gives me the opportunity and freedom to write and publish even more titles in the future: suspense novels under this gender-neutral pen name, and thrillers under my own name. 

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

 

A: I'm currently wrapping up copy edits on the next Avery Bishop novel. It's called One Year Gone and is about a 17-year-old girl who goes missing. The police eventually deem her a runaway.

 

Then, almost a year later, her mother receives a text message from her in the middle of the night saying that she's been abducted and fears the person who abducted her is going to kill her. When her mother says she'll call the police, her daughter tells her the man who abducted her is the police. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I recently read a very short book called Sisters by Daisy Johnson. I liked it a lot, and I recommend others check it out.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rebecca Elliott

 


Rebecca Elliott is the author of the new young adult novel Pretty Funny for a Girl. Her many other books include the Owl Diaries series. She's based in Suffolk, UK.

 

Hi. Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

 

Q: You’re very welcome! To begin, what role did you see comedy and humor playing in your new novel?

 

A: I think humour is the best vehicle to allow us to explore emotive issues. It allows us to see the humanity in situations, and most importantly it makes the book (I hope) enjoyable!

 

“When you find the funny in this serious world that is so often full of pain and cruelty it’s like discovering a diamond in a pile of crap. It’s precious.”

 

So says my lead character Haylah. She’s a wannabe stand-up comedian and like me, she’s had a life-long obsession with comedy and sees laughter and humour as one of the most important of human endeavours, connections, and emotions.

 

Laughter and jokes aren’t the frivolous froth surrounding the more “serious” lives we lead—to me they are what make us human, what unite us and make us able to carry on even when things are a little dark. The bonds that are formed through laughing with our friends and family are arguably just as strong as those created through “serious” conversations and experiences.


Stand-up comedy specifically seemed like a good analogous way to explore the teenage dilemma of wanting to be listened to, to be accepted, to be centre stage and express yourself fully and yet deal with the fear of standing out from the crowd, of being judged, and feeling utterly alone. 

 

Through her comedy, Haylah explores self-expression, vulnerability, self-deprecation, confidence, and hopefully also makes the reader laugh (a lot).

 

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

 

A: Unfortunately one of my strengths, not just in writing but in life generally, is definitely not in forward planning! So unfortunately I’m not one of those authors who meticulously plans out every chapter and instead I employ more of a “just wing it” technique.

 

I planned the rough plot and the first few chapters and I did have a fairly clear idea of how the story would end, but then I just got into the writing and let the characters drive where their stories went and what scenic route they took to that ending.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Her comedy routine, though at times self-deprecating, also flips some stereotypes, and by book’s end Haylah has begun taking charge of her present and her future." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love it! This is so what I wanted Haylah’s (to use that awful and overused word) “journey” to be. That through her experiences she at least starts to see what it’s like to love herself and trust her own opinion of herself rather than letting others’ opinions shape her personality.

 

It should be pointed out though that Haylah doesn’t start out as your classic ashamed-of-herself, shy, larger teenage girl; she does have a certain amount of belief in herself, but it’s easily knocked. I guess like a lot of teenagers (or, just people, really) she’s a contradiction of bubbling confidence and crushing feelings of “Oh my God I’m such an idiot and everyone knows it.”

 

Her comedy routine at the end is a sort of culmination of the self-confidence and self-acceptance that’s finally overriding her self-deprecation and self-doubt. 

 

Haylah’s not completely “there” yet at the end of the novel (but then who can ever claim to have completely mastered the self-acceptance thing, especially as a teenager), but she’s at least starting to believe her own abilities and positives. And as Sophia Bush so brilliantly put it, “We are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.”

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

 

A: These days more than ever, teenagers, particularly teenage girls, are constantly bombarded by the ridiculous Instagrammy pressures to look and act in a certain way.

 

And often in the literature aimed at them I find that my favourite kind of teenage girl is under-represented—the kind of girl who’s actually more interested in being herself, regardless of how she looks and how she’s projected into society: loud, proud, opinionated, unique, and frickin’ funny.

 

So I hope the book will resonate with readers who can perhaps see themselves a little in Haylah.

 

I also just hope people will fall in love with the characters (especially Haylah’s younger brother Noah who’s based on my own son!) and enjoy, experience, and giggle along with their ups and downs.

 

And ultimately I just hope it's a laugh-out-loud, uplifting tale about the importance of self-love over the opinions of others and the joy of wobbling your funny bits in the face of life.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sandra Neil Wallace

 

Sandra Neil Wallace is the author of the new children's picture book biography Marjory Saves the Everglades: The Story of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Her many other books include The Teachers March!. She lives in New Hampshire.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and what do you see as her legacy today?

 

A: As a journalist myself, I really wanted to know how Marjory—who became a reporter for the Miami Herald--used her voice for good to protect the Everglades. What motivated her? How did she do it? I thought young readers would be interested in the “why,” but also HOW she created change amidst so many barriers.

 

Remember, Marjory’s life spanned two centuries. When she became an adult, women didn’t even have the right to vote yet. This motivated her to become a suffragist, pushing for votes for women in Florida. She also became the first Florida woman to join the US Naval Reserve.

 

But the most fascinating discoveries about Marjory for me were two things: how she helped convince parks officials to make the Everglades a national park, and how she made bold scientific discoveries.

 

Taking parks officials on a Goodyear blimp ride over the Everglades, along with conservationist Ernest Coe, was such a brilliant idea, and something I uncovered while researching her life and listening to a recording of her describe it. It had never been written about in any books for kids about her. And it worked.

 

But when it became clear that people really didn’t know why the Everglades mattered and saw the area as useless swampland, Marjory made inroads in the nascent field of ecology in Florida and shared that knowledge—including how the Everglades region teemed with life fed by a slow-moving river of grass—through a beautiful book called The Everglades: River of Grass.


She made connections between water, wetlands, wildlife, and humanity that had never been known by the general public before.

 

In terms of Marjory’s legacy, when you realize what Marjory accomplished as a nature writer, journalist, citizen ecologist, and environmental activist—it’s astounding. But outside of Florida, people may be familiar with her name but have no idea who she is.

 

Yet Marjory’s legacy is all around us; not only with Everglades National Park, but every time a child looks at a manatee or leatherback sea turtle and knows that boat motors or fishing nets can harm them, and they begin to think differently. They begin to think beyond themselves.

 

And every time a child joins Young Friends of the Everglades—the organization Marjory started—and takes the pledge to protect the planet, it’s because of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

 

Q: What do you think Rebecca Gibbon's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: Rebecca’s illustrations imbibe Marjory’s energy and strength while at the same time, illuminate the flora and fauna of the Everglades--some spreads have more than 60 different species rendered in watercolor.

 

It was remarkable collaborating on this book with Rebecca. You know, typically, nonfiction authors and illustrators don’t communicate with each other while a book is in progress, but I broke down that barrier with my first picture book biography.

 

For Marjory Saves the Everglades, I reached out to Rebecca because I wanted her to know that I had lots of visual research material that she could have access to.

 

Marjory lived to be age 108--and with me acquiring so many images of her through her life stages, I knew these artifacts and photos of her, the house she lived in in Coconut Grove, the blimp ride photos from nearly 100 years ago--could only amplify Rebecca’s illustrations and heighten her creative process.

 

I also wanted Rebecca to feel free to ask me questions that might deepen her knowledge or clarify any little thing needed for visual accuracy. Through these conversations, we also became instant friends. (We even snack on the same things while working—barbeque chips, rice cakes, and granola bars.)

 

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

 

A: I read everything Marjory had written and all articles and books about her, as well as listening to taped recordings. I was grateful that Marjory had penned a memoir, which gave me the opportunity to have her voice infused alongside the narrative through quotes.

 

She also wrote many stories about the Everglades and was interviewed several times about her activism—especially during the 1960s and ‘70s when she prevented an airport from being built in the middle of the Everglades.

 

Even so, I had to really search for quotidian details about Marjory that would highlight her personality and how she lived. (In a curious cottage with walls painted flamingo pink.) Did she have pets? Yes! Several stray cats, who inspired her to study the Florida panther.

 

And because Marjory lived a long life, I wanted to know what it was like to be an activist at 105 years old. It really proved so true that she wanted her own life in her own way and that she made it so. Marjory was also the most persistent person I have written about, so far.

 

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

 

A: How one person really can make a difference and that to have an impact on making the world a better place, you need to believe in yourself and be with people who want to create positive change in the world, too.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Right now, I’m working on two picture book biographies about women who broke barriers and made bold discoveries in science, but kids have never heard of them--which is exactly why their stories and their voices need to be known.

 

So many women are hidden figures in STEM, and I can’t wait to share their stories. I’ve finished the research—meaning interviews and scouring all primary sources. Now I’m writing the narrative.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I really believe in taking the activism I write about off the page and into the community. Marjory inspired me to use my voice for good not only to write about hidden changemakers young readers need to know about, but by creating change in the community I live in.

 

That’s why I co-founded the DailyGoodNH.org with my husband and frequent writing collaborator, Rich Wallace. Focusing on inclusion, food security, literacy, and health and wellness, we created Global Foods Pantries at New Hampshire college campuses and will roll-out a summer Feed and Read Aloud program with the City of Keene.

 

All our closets at home are now foods pantries and it makes our Mondays—the day we focus on The Daily Good—the best day of the week.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb