Friday, October 12, 2018

Q&A with Brian Herberger

Brian Herberger is the author of the new young adult novel Cross Country, a sequel to his young adult novel Miss E. He has taught middle school English and worked with teachers on classroom computer technology. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: In our previous interview, you indicated that it was unlikely you'd write a sequel to Miss E. What changed your mind?

A: I didn't plan on a sequel to Miss E. I really felt like I had wrapped up all the plot threads and intentionally brought everything to a close. 

I was actually in the middle of researching for another book idea when I realized I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to the characters I'd created in Miss E.  But just wanting to write more story for your characters isn't a good enough reason for a sequel.

I needed a plot that would allow Bets’s character to continue to evolve and grow. That was pretty easy.  Bets was only 15 in Miss E., so she has a lot of story left to tell.

Bets's view of the Vietnam War in Miss E. was very black or white. The war was either good or bad. Her father was either away or home.

I decided that I wanted her character to move beyond that, to learn that there could be many different views on the war, that having her father come home again wouldn't automatically make everything okay, that sometimes good people get tangled up in bad things, and that bad people can show up right in the middle of a really good thing.

Miss E. is all about Bets figuring out where she stands on the war and deciding what she’s going to do about it. In Cross Country, along with discovering the many places beyond her small town, she’s meeting people who have ideas, opinions, and problems that go way beyond what she was struggling with in Miss E. So I knew all that would make for a good story.

Q: How did you decide the book would involve a cross-country trip from California to Woodstock, and did you need to do much research to write it?

A: A cross-country trip seemed like the perfect way for Bets to meet a variety of people. My original idea was that the people Bets and Emmie encountered would ride with them for part of their trip and they would get a different opinion on the war from each person, a different perspective. 

That initial concept evolved as I worked at fitting each of those characters into the storyline and giving them a reason for being there.

Woodstock made for the perfect destination. Miss E. took place in 1967 and 1968 and Woodstock happened in 1969, so the timing was right, and it was certainly an event that Bets and Emmie would want to be a part of. 

Woodstock is also a positive that balances out many other parts of the book. Bets is dealing with some pretty heavy topics - PTSD, racism, people leaving for war, and others running away from it. It helps that Bets and Emmie have a destination that rises above that - Woodstock is all about peace and love, in spite of (or maybe because of) all the other things happening in our country at that time.

I didn’t do nearly as much research as I did before writing Miss E. I was intentionally vague about many of the places in the story, and there are only a few towns or cities that are named. 

That wasn’t me just being lazy about research. If I pin a name on place, then it becomes one event that happened in that one town. I really wanted much of the story to feel like it could happen anywhere, in any town. 

Even without place names though, I wanted the trip to follow a route that seemed realistic. One afternoon, I spread 10 or 15 maps across the living room floor, and then got down on my hands and knees and traced a route from Forestville, California, to Bethel, New York. Those route numbers are listed at the top of each chapter.  

I did need to research Woodstock, and that was a lot of fun.  I needed to know the bands that played, some of the stories behind the music, and what it was like for all the people gathered there.  I also listened to music from Woodstock and from those bands almost constantly while writing. That helped to put me in the right time and place.

I’ve also seen some of the original Woodstock bands, and camped out in the rain and the mud at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock in 1994. And I’ve taken a couple cross-country trips, so I had that personal experience to draw on as well.

Q: How do you think your character Bets has changed from the first book to this one?

A: Bets is about a year older than she was at the end of Miss E. That’s not a long time, but she’s gone though a lot in that one year. She’s dealing with changes in her father and the impact the war has had on him.

The optimism she had when planning her anti-war demonstrations has faded; it’s been a year and the war has only gotten worse. She’s seeing some pretty negative stories in newspapers and on TV - race riots and the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. That’s a lot to deal with, and I think Bets has grown up a lot in that one year.

She’s more sure of herself. She knows where she stands on the war, and she doesn’t hesitate to speak up in class. She’s more independent - she’s realized that even though her father is back home, she can’t really depend on him. 

At the same time, I didn’t want to lose her original character. She is still very introspective, still figuring out the world and her place in it.

The more important change for her is the one that happens during Cross Country. Bets learns a lot on her trip. She sees the issues she’s been dealing with from multiple perspectives, and she takes care of herself in some really difficult and traumatic situations. 

Bets comes back with a better understanding of the issues the country was facing, she can better relate to her parents, and she has a very mature outlook on the war and the issues her father is dealing with.  

Q: Both books deal with the impact of the Vietnam War. What do you see as the war's legacy today?

A: I think the war’s legacy is very complex.I hope I captured some of that in Cross Country. Bets has a overly-simple view on the war in Miss E. And that’s okay. She’s 15 and is still figuring out what she thinks. She just wants the war to be over and her father home again.  But in Cross Country she sees that things are not simple at all.

I was just a few years old during the last years of the war, so I have to rely on the perspectives others have given me. 

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with people who experienced the war in a variety of ways - veterans who fought in it and people who lost fathers or brothers. I spoke with a neighbor who remembers her parents’ house being a safe space where people could stay if they are in town for a demonstration or moving from place to place because they were dodging the draft.

A colleague was a college professor during the war and he shared two memories - knowing that for some students a failing grade would mean a draft notice, and the lingering smell of tear gas days after police broke up a demonstration.

I’m not sure how we come to terms with all those stories and memories.  Our country was divided on the war, and decades later we still see those divisions in the different perspectives people have. I think we’ll probably see the same years from now when we look back on the divisions we currently have in our country.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I wish I could say that I’m working on another book right now! I’ve been busy promoting Cross Country and I have a fall calendar full of book events. 

Beyond that, my wife has given me a list of things that need to be fixed around the house before another book can get started. So it looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

I have two very different book ideas that I’ve been playing with. One is another historical fiction, set during the Dust Bowl. Like Miss E., it involves a high-school-age main character and a reclusive older character who has a mysterious past.

I also have an idea for a story that takes place in a rather bleak future. There are a lot of dystopian novels out there, and I’m not sure I want to add another to that collection, but I have some interesting characters and a rough storyline that seems like it would be fun to tell.

Whatever comes next, I’m going to have fun writing it. I really enjoy the whole writing process, so I’m definitely going to keep doing it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As an English teacher, I always asked my students to make connections between the books we read and their lives. 

For me, that’s been the most interesting part of putting my books out into the world for people to pick up and read, because I don’t have any control over those connections. I have my own reasons for writing the story, my own connections, but that’s going to be different for every reader.

One example that keeps coming up is the protests that we’ve seen in the last two years. Miss E. came out almost a year before all of that, but readers now make connections between the protests in the book and what they’re experiencing today. 

I never intended that, didn’t anticipate those changes in our country, but I think it’s great that a book about the ‘70s can offer a lens into current events.

There’s a point in Cross Country where Bets explains how the word “draft” seemed to sneak its way into everyone’s vocabulary. They didn’t learn it in school. One day it was just in their mouths, like it had always been there.

I had a reader email to say how that image made her think of the word “terrorism” after September 11, and how it was something she never really thought about, until she realized one day that it was always on her mind and felt like it had always been there.  

I love that books can do that for us! I love that we can read something that someone else wrote and create meaning that is personal to us. Books are very powerful, and whether you’re on the writer or the reader side of that equation, it’s really exciting.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Brian Herberger.

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