Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Q&A with Martha Freeman

Martha Freeman is the author of the new novel for kids Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question. Her many other books for younger readers include the Secret Cookie Club series and the First Kid mysteries. She has worked as a journalist, a teacher, and an advertising copywriter, and she lives in Philadelphia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your character Effie? 

A: The real Effie was a woman who made wreaths and other things she cobbled together after she was widowed. She was a country girl in Pennsylvania, nothing much like the Effie in the book. The name fascinated me. Her daughter lived on a farm with goats in Central Pennsylvania, and my daughter volunteered on her farm.

All my books come from a hodgepodge…I did a reading at a fair in Central Pennsylvania. A little girl whispered in my ear that she wasn’t allowed to tell me her name. I came up with an idea that there were conservative religious people out there, very private.

I concocted a whole story about [this]. It was more interesting to invent the whole beard idea [that's in the book], less controversial than using a real religion or cult-esque idea.

It sometimes feels like whatever I ate for breakfast, or what I saw out the window [inspires my writing]. With the solar airplane, I was thinking of Howard Hughes, and cobbling together different ideas and hoping it turned into a story!

Q: You dedicate the book to reporters. Why did you choose that as your dedication, and do you think Effie would make a good journalist?

A: I do think Effie will make a good reporter! I was a reporter too—being a reporter was the world’s greatest job. It gives you a license to be nosy. If you’re curious about the world, nothing is greater than that possibility.

Effie is much braver than I was. She has self-confidence. I wish I had that underlying confidence. She’s a little Pippi Longstocking-esque.

Especially in these times, I have so much respect for reporters. …They’re vilified. I don’t know what people think the media’s great wicked bias is. They just want to tell the truth…

I used to teach journalism. I would tell the students in class that reporters were good. They thought they were sucking the blood of celebrities…I said that’s not really what reporting is about.

I think they’re just curious people. I do some corporate writing too. I was writing about arc flashing, when electricity jumps through the air. I was thinking I didn’t know anything about that—any time I read up on anything new, it’s exciting! Effie is like me in that way.

Q: Family secrets play a big role in the novel. Did you figure out the entire plot before you wrote it, or was some of it a secret even to you until you wrote more of the book?

A: There were things that came to me later in the process. My process is that I do a combination of having an overall plot arc and allowing for possible things that will come to me.

I know if I’m putting a goat in the book, I wanted to goat to go on the roof. When Effie and Moriah want to have a signal they should have it through the woods, so why would she have to implement the signal? If you have woods, you’ve got to climb a tree. It was a combination!

I knew Pendleton Odbody was going to turn out to be a relative, and if he was going to turn out to be a relative, it had to be a secret. Since…DNA seemed to show the Sally Hemings theory was true, the idea that most of us are made up of a combination of DNA from many racial groups [became more widely known]. That had to be a secret because Effie’s family wasn’t revealing it.

I leave open [another idea]—it seems likely who the real inventor in the family was. There’s a definite feminist agenda in this book.

I did think the idea of two strains of the family coming together did strike a biblical note. I’ve just solved all the problems of the world!

Q: You've written more than two dozen books for kids. Are you usually working on more than one at a time?

A: What I do is every time I start—I deny that I do this—I will start out working on two at once, even three, and the idea is that it will be nice, but I hit a bad patch. What inevitably happens is, I can’t do that!

I have two contracts and started working on two books at once, but my focus shifted to the longer book. As of yesterday, I’m turning to the second one. I try more than one at a time, but inevitably fail.

Then I’m working on the make-a-living projects at the same time, but that’s not so difficult.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: There’s the one I just sent the draft of, Zap, or Zapped—I’m trying to incorporate STEM things into my books. It’s about a huge power outage and two kids try to figure out what caused it. It takes place in a city not unlike Camden, New Jersey. There’s poverty and a lot of things going on.

The other one is a retelling of a fairy tale. It’s supposed to be hilarious and short. It’s about the relationship of Goldilocks and Baby Bear—When Goldilocks Came to Stay.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One review said the book is a lighthearted book but you realize there’s more to it. That’s true. It really is trying to deal with lots of big issues without being scary or weighty or I can’t deal with that book right now. There are a lot of things worth discussing. I hope book groups and classrooms will find it.

And the character Pendleton Odbody is really based on my friend Sharif. I find it’s good in a way because you hear that person talking. It’s fun to do.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a  previous Q&A with Martha Freeman, please click here.

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