Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Very First Author Interview!

As faithful readers of this blog know, one of my favorite books this year was Undercover by Beth Kephart. Recently, I had the great privilege of being able to interview Beth over email. Beth has a fantastic blog and she posts almost daily—everything from photographs to poems to musings on the written word. Her second novel for teens, House of Dance, comes out next June (I got a sneak peek and it’s just as fabulous as Undercover!). And her fourth novel for teens was just bought by HarperTeen. Congratulations, Beth!

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 clich├ęd 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.

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.
Em: If you had just one piece of advice for young writers, what would it be?
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.

Other Resources:
Beth's Blog
Beth's Page at HarperTeen
Undercover at HarperTeen
Become a reviewer for House of Dance

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sneak Peak at 2008

So based on what I've seen of books to be released in 2008, I think it will be easy to stick to my New Year's Resolution. Here are some of the books that will make it a little easier....
I've already read these three. Lock & Key by Sarah Dessen, House of Dance by Beth Kephart, and Audrey, Wait by Robin Benway. I'm going to wait until they are released to post my reviews but, let me just say, they rock. They're already the best books I've read in 2008 and it's not even January!
I haven't read these yet and I'm really pining for them. I do have a copy of Sweethearts by Sara Zarr waiting for me, but if you have Princess Ben by Catherine Murdock or Perfect You by Elizabeth Scott, maybe you could pass them along to me. We could do a book swap. 2 for 1 (two of my books for one of yours). What do you say? Pretty please?!

Favorite Books of 2007

Even though the year isn't quite over yet, I thought I'd post my favorite books of 2007. I did a lot of reading this year (over 140 books!) and I posted reviews for 36 of those. I've never made a New Year's Resolution but I'm thinking that maybe this year I'll resolve to read 200 books and post reviews for 70 of them.

Em's Fav Teen Books of 2007 (in no particular order)
Tithe by Holly Black
The Immortals quartet by Tamora Pierce
Undercover by Beth Kephart
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Evolution Me & Other Freaks by Robin Brande
Boy Toy by Barry Lyga
I'd Tell You I'd Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

And here are some "adult" books that I enjoyed too...
Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I've really loved blogging this year. It's so exciting to chat with other people who love great books and teen books in particular. Thanks to everyone for all the recommended books that are now on my list of must-reads! And check back later this week for a special book contest.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Weekend Movies

I recently saw two great movies in the theater. The first was Enchanted. I wasn't expecting much before I went to see it - I just thought it would be a good Saturday afternoon diversion. (Confession time - I was dying to see it as soon as I heard that Dr. McDreamy was in it!) It was a great movie! It poked fun at Disney stereotypes and also had a cute, heartwarming story. I went to see it with some friends and one guy just started groaning as soon as the first song started. But he was smiling when we left the theater so I guess he got over the musical aspect of it. Oh, and I just found out that small roles were played by the ladies who were the voices for the animated Ariel, Belle, and Pocahontas. I grew up watching Disney princess movies and found Enchanted to be just as much fun. Plus, Dr. McDreamy. *sigh*

The other movie that I saw this weekend was The Golden Compass. It's been awhile since I read the books so I wasn't as upset about scenes left out as other people I've talked to. I thought the daemons were done really well - except why didn't anyone else's daemon talk? Didn't they talk in the books? Or am I remembering incorrectly? Nicole Kidman was a great pick for Ms. Coulter. She just oozed evilness - it was wonderful. The ending left a lot to be desired though and I can't find any information about filming for The Subtle Knife. It would make a good movie trilogy but they'd better hurry or Lyra will be too old.

Queen Geek Social Club by Laura Preble Book Review

The Queen Geek Social Club by Laura Preble
(Penguin, Paperback)


Shelby Chapelle is happy being a loner geek, until Becca Gallagher moves into town. Becca is a geek too, but she's a geek with ambition. Becca wants to start The Queen Geek Social Club at their high school and recruit other geeky girls to join them. Throw in a few other queen geeks and a popular guy who just happens to have a little geek in him, and Shelby is in for an exciting freshman year.

Ok, so I have to admit that this book intrigued me because, well, let's just say that I'm a bit of a geek myself. My brother often calls me by the affectionate nickname "dork". So I understood Shelby and enjoyed reading about her friendship with Becca. Shelby has always enjoyed being the lone geek, so she's not too sure if she's ready for Becca's grand publicity schemes. Preble follows up this book with Queen Geeks in Love, another funny geek novel. In Queen Geeks in Love, Shelby, Becca, and the other Queen Geeks decide to create a comic book based on themselves - The Queen Geek Superheroes. And Shelby has to come to terms with her relationship with Fletcher (the cute, popular, geek guy) - will she stay a lone Queen Geek or is Fletcher worth opening up her heart? If you've ever thought of yourself as a geek or maybe just a tiny bit nerdy, these books are worth reading. After all, geeky is the new cool.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

How to Hook a Hottie by Tina Ferraro Book Review

How to Hook a Hottie by Tina Ferraro
(Random House, Paperback)

Kate is a no-nonsense girl, intent on becoming a millionaire before the age of twenty. She has a deal with her parents - raise $5,000 before senior year is over and she doesn't have to waste four precious, potential money-earning years in college. Her piggy bank is looking a little grim until the hottest guy in school asks her out. Now all of a sudden, every girl in school is asking Kate for help on how to hook a hottie. That's when she comes up with her Six Point Plan. For only $100, any girl in school can learn Kate's Hexagon For Hooking Hotties. But does Kate really know what she's talking about?

I'm not sure I would pay $100 to learn how to snag a cute guy, but Kate's story is laugh-out-loud funny. Enter in a super cute best guy friend, Dal, and Kate's predicament is even funnier. Dal's her best friend, plus he has a girlfriend, and yet Kate can't stop comparing every guy to him. Luckily, Dal is helping her hoodwink the girls in school and his hottie-hooking tips seem to be working. My favorite tip was the one that Dal saved for last. Look for this novel on shelves in January. It's a quick read and sure to be a good diversion on a snowy day.