Em: You’ve written several adult titles, including the National Book Award Finalist A Slant of Sun. What made you decide to write books for a young adult audience?
Beth: Sometimes a world is opened up for you. I had been teaching a young writer’s workshop in my home and then at a garden for years, to begin with, and so I had the privilege of spending time with the potential readers of a young adult novel—of knowing what they look for in books. I had also, in 2001, chaired the Young People’s Literature Jury for the National Book Awards and had consequently read some 160 books for young people all in one fell swoop—which gave me a whole lot to think about in terms of what works and what doesn’t work so well. But the real impetus came from a letter I received from Laura Geringer, who has her own imprint with HarperTeen. She had read my memoirs and asked if I might consider writing for her. We talked for a while about this possibility by phone, but it wasn’t until I met her for breakfast in Philadelphia, until she began asking me a certain line of questions, that the idea for Undercover emerged.
Em: Undercover is such a powerful story and Elisa’s quest to find herself speaks to all of us. Perhaps this is a clichéd question, but where did you get the idea for Elisa and her story?
Beth: Elisa’s invisibility, her love of nature, her love of words, her ice skating are all drawn from who I was as a younger person, and who in many ways I continue to be. I also love “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the play, and thought what a privilege it would be to weave it into a story.Em: One of my favorite characters in Undercover is Dr. Charmin. In fact, when I was reading the novel, I kept picturing my high school English teacher as Dr. Charmin. Did you have a Dr. Charmin in your life?
Beth: I did have a Dr. Charmin, and her name was Dr. Dewsnap. She had none of the same physical attributes as the character in my book, and we didn’t have the same conversations (nor did she assign Cyrano or anything else Elisa reads). But she had faith in me as a young poet.Em: I love Elisa’s word journal and read that you based the idea off of your own word journal. How long have you been keeping a word journal, what gave you the idea, and could you share one or two interesting entries with us?
Beth: I started this journal in my early twenties, when I was writing about architecture for a living (now I write about pharmaceuticals for a living and need a whole different vocab for that). You’d be amazed by how many familiar words I have in here—words I simply like and want to remember to use, such as “bibelot” or “captious.” I read Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees over the summer and, as I always do, I noted the words I hadn’t seen before (or couldn’t remember seeing). Her books typically add more to my journal at one time than any other writer, but I often can’t see myself using any part of my Dillard-enriched vocabulary. “Thigmotropic” and “tonus” aren’t high on my to-use list. Patricia Hampl’s books are vocabulary rich as well, but the words I learn from her are typically better fits with my own story-telling style.Em: I read on your blog recently that you plan on writing 4 young adult novels. Can you tell us anything about them?
Beth: House of Dance comes out next June, and it’s the story of a girl named Rosie who has been asked to take care of her dying grandfather during the summer of her 15th year. Rosie’s dad is long gone and her mother is preoccupied, and it is up to Rosie to find a way to ease her grandfather’s final days. She wants to give him a gift of some sort, even as she is helping him clean out his house, and the gift that she decides to give revolves around music and ballroom dancing—elements which, she hopes, will return him to his fondest memories in his final days. Rosie finds this gift in a quirky dance studio, learns to dance a little herself, and brings all of this back to him. House is also about the reconciliation of a daughter and a mother, and about young love.Em: If you had just one piece of advice for young writers, what would it be?
I’ve also written a first draft of a book called The Heart Is Not a Size, which details two weeks in the lives of two best girlfriends, who travel to a squatter’s village called Anapra, in Juarez, Mexico, for a mission trip. It’s the story of what happens to them and to their friendship during this time and, in particular, during a near tragedy. HarperTeen has also bought this book.
A fourth book is called Nothing But Ghosts and is a mystery of sorts. I’m still working on it.
Finally, I’ve written a long short story for a HarperTeen collection due out in 2010—this about the aftermath of a teen suicide.
Beth: This is truly terrible, but when I’m asked this question, I can never really settle on one piece of advice. Reading is exceedingly important, of course —always read more than you write. Be willing to fail; that’s critical, too, for having structures fall apart in our hands and having characters lose their centers, then figuring out the fix, is what stretches us and makes us better writers in the long run. Pay attention to the world around you. Listen to the way people talk to one another.Em: What are some of your favorite young adult books? Which ones influenced you while growing up?
Beth: I’m again going to be completely honest here and report that my greatest influence, always, was music. I loved musicals like My Fair Lady and The Music Man and The Sound of Music—listened to the albums endlessly, loved the way that stories got told through melodies. I was writing poetry as a kid, and these musicals were critical. And rather early on I was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was an enormous influence. Of more traditional YA literature, I loved Black Beauty, Pippi Longstocking, and all things Robert Louis Stevenson.Em: You post photographs almost daily to your blog. I love taking pictures myself although unfortunately, I haven’t made time for it lately. Do you use a digital camera? Do you consider yourself to be first an author or first a photographer?
Beth: Wow, you are a great interviewer, and I love this question. I do use a digital camera (I was a late convert). I don’t think of myself as either an author or a photographer (those are big words, earned by great talents). I think of myself as one who is out there bearing witness, trying to get the world down, trying to live every day to the fullest. I think of myself as someone who is always trembling on the verge of exuberance.Em: We all know the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words and I just have to say that the covers for Undercover & House of Dance are amazing. Did you have any input during the design process?
Beth: Oh, thank you. Yes, those covers are great gifts, aren’t they? I did have input—but the best thing of all is that Laura Geringer and Jill Santopolo, my editors, allowed me to have input. They listened to me, they sent a number of possibilities back to the drawing boards, and in the end, there was no compromise—we all love these covers equally. In the end, too, they are the products of two great designers.Em: What is your favorite thing about being a writer? And on the flip side, what is the hardest part about being a writer?
Beth: Wow (again). My favorite thing about being a writer….? Perhaps that it gives me an excuse to do what I love most, which is to read and to live my life with urgency. The hardest part is never being as good as I want to be. I also try hard not to read reviews—good or bad.Em: I’ve heard all sorts of crazy stories about strange writing habits, such as wearing only one sock while writing or only using a lucky pen or, and this is the grossest, not showering during the last few weeks of writing a novel. Do you have any quirky writing habits that you’d be willing to share with us?
Beth: Whoa, no. I’m actually pretty straightforward over here in my lovely office. I do rely on movement quite a bit, though, when working out a plot detail. I take long walks and in the morning I dance for a half hour or so, thinking almost exclusively about the story the whole time. When I’m working on a book (and I’m mostly always working on a book), I usually get up between 3 AM and 4 AM so that I can get some writing time in. I run a pretty hectic business during the daylight hours and do a lot of pro bono work, so it’s during those early morning hours that I get the most writing done, except, of course, when my UK-based clients start ringing me up at 4 AM (which happens more than most might expect).Em: I’ve had the opportunity to meet a few of my favorite authors, most notably Michael Ondaatje, and I always clam up. I think I’ll be able to play it cool and just as soon as I’m standing in front of them, ready to get my book signed, I can’t think of a single thing to say! Have you ever been in a similar situation?
Beth: Well, let me say this, when Michael Ondaatje (one of my very favorite writers, too) came to my town I didn’t even get up the nerve to go up to the table! I did send him a long letter once, though, that he answered (kind soul). Another writer whose work I absolutely adore is Colum McCann, and this time, when he came to town, I got up the nerve to speak with him. I was nearly last in line and there with a friend and he spoke with us for a very long time. It all pays off, if you can summon the nerve.Em: Is there any question you wish I had asked that I didn’t?
Beth: Not a single one. This has been a lot of fun.Thanks for being my very first author interview, Beth!
I had so much fun writing these interview questions and later reading Beth's answers. I hope everyone enjoys this as much as I did.
Beth's Page at HarperTeen
Undercover at HarperTeen
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