Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Q&A with Diana Harmon Asher

Diana Harmon Asher is the author of Sidetracked, a new novel for kids focusing on a seventh-grade boy who joins his school's cross-country team. She has worked in the story department at Columbia Pictures, and in subsidiary rights at Doubleday. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sidetracked, and for your main character, Joseph?

A: My first inspiration for Sidetracked was my oldest son’s experience with cross country. He was in the resource room, and, as he’ll be the first to admit, not a gifted athlete. He joined the cross-country team in seventh grade, and he’s now a marathoner and running coach.

I really wanted to portray the world as Joseph saw and felt it, including the confusions and self-doubt. As I started writing, Joseph developed a unique personality, with his own peculiarities and strengths.

When Heather and Grandpa entered the storyline, I realized that a theme common to all of them was the way expectations weigh us down, and I tried to write a story that showed each of them trying to reconcile who they are with what they are expected to be.

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

A: That’s a really interesting question. I’ll try to answer without giving away the ending! I knew that I wanted Joseph to grow, and to have a victory, but in a realistic way. I didn’t want him to join the team and suddenly discover a hidden talent that makes him “okay.” 

But I also didn’t want to give him some consolation prize, like the sportsmanship award. He needed to come through for Heather, and also prove something to himself, but he had to do it using the traits we’ve seen in him throughout the story, and what he’s learned from Coach T and his teammates.

I’ve been to a lot of meets (all three of my sons ran cross country) and it’s common for the faster runners to “lap,” or overtake the slower runners. That gave me a chance to have Joseph cross paths with Trey during the final meet, but it took a while to figure out exactly what would happen there.

I got the idea for Joseph’s other “victory,” when I went to a middle school league meet to cheer on a team that my son was coaching. I realized that there are ways to earn a “win,” while still not being anywhere near the fastest one out there.

Q: Can you say more about the idea of running as the focus of the book?

A: Cross country and track and field are sports that take in all of those kids who have been cut from basketball, soccer, baseball. A lot of kids’ hearts are broken around seventh grade, when they’re told they can’t play those sports for their school. Cross country and track is where they find their “team.” 

There are also some really terrific athletes—boys and girls--who choose cross country and track, so there’s a great mix of talents and abilities. I also love the concept of the PR—the Personal Record. The idea of “doing your best” is great, but trying for a Personal Record is more than that. It means that your goal is to improve, to resist the urge to quit, and to do better than you did last time. 

There’s nothing wrong with competing with others—racing can be incredibly exciting! But for a kid like Joseph, striving for a PR can be so important, as a place to start.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I could re-read Charles Dickens’ novels over and over and never get tired of them. I spent my junior year of college in London, and I used to seek out the nooks and crannies where his novels took place.

I also love Richard Russo’s novels, possibly because there’s something Dickensian in his characters and humor. I feel the same way about J.K. Rowling. I’ve read some wonderful books for kids recently, including Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, Richard Peck’s The Best Man, Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion, and my friend Carol Weston's Speed of Life.

One of my very favorite books is The One and Only Ivan. I love that Katherine Applegate spent years writing the Animorphs series, then came out with this unbelievably moving story, told in the perfect, poetic voice of Ivan, the gorilla. 

And I can't resist a shout-out to my incredibly talented writing pal MacKenzie Cadenhead, whose edgy sci-fi young adult novel Sleeper was published in August.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another middle grade novel, this time told from a girl’s point of view. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I’m still working it out, but it moves from the world of middle school running to the world of middle school musical theater.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is my first published novel, and I’ve been waiting and working for a long, long time. It’s hard to convey how much it means to me that Sidetracked has gotten such a warm reception.

I’ve spoken with kids who tell me they trudged through their summer reading assignments, resenting every minute of it, then they flew through Sidetracked and really enjoyed it. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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