Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘author interview

I never thought I was any good. I just kept writing though.”

–S.A. Mahan, The Flume

SusanMahanAlthough S.A. Mahan only started writing for publication about five years ago, she cannot remember a time when she wasn’t making up stories and wanting to write. She waited though until her children were grown up and moved out on their own.

Living in the mountains of Colorado with her husband, Mahan conceives her stories while hiking the Rocky Mountain trails and then returns to her mountain home to write them. She raises alpacas, enjoys the fiber arts, and is an avid outdoorswoman. Real life events and situations continue to inspire her.

Now, Mahan has two books nominated for awards. “Chrissie’s Run,” written under the author’s pen name, S.A. Mahan, was a finalist in the 2014 Dante Rossetti Awards Young Adult Novel Competition. In addition, her children’s book, “The Baby Sea Turtle,” was one of three finalists for the 2015 Colorado Book Awards for Children’s Literature. I’ll review the latter title tomorrow. Save the date: August 25!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

ALLISON: If one animal were to describe you as a child, which would it be? Why?

SUSAN: I was a little shy as a child, but inquisitive, so, actually the turtle would best describe me as a child.

ALLISON: How about as a teen? Why?

SUSAN: I hate to say it, but as a teen I was more like a monkey!! A little silly, full of energy, playful–but also somewhat reflective.

ALLISON: Who mentored you growing up? How?

SUSAN: My Mom, a wonderful Mom, and a great science teacher. She taught me to question everything, and to love animals.

ALLISON: You raise alpacas. What does a day look like for this task?

SUSAN: Well, no matter the weather, you must go outside early and feed and water the herd! You also learn to be observant, and enjoy their different personalities.

ALLISON: What do you most like about Colorado?

SUSAN: Hiking! At all times of the year! I never get tired of the majestic beauty of the mountains.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: You have always enjoyed making up stories. Why did you wait to write until five years ago?

SUSAN: My husband traveled for a living, and I was busy raising three incredible children.

ALLISON: Why a story about a baby turtle?

SUSAN: 20 years ago, our family went to the Gulf of Mexico for a family reunion. While there, we visited with cousin Deborah,an accomplished artist, and thought it would be fun to collaborate on a book. We thought of writing about sea turtles, since we were at the beach. I wrote the story, divided it up by page, and sent it to Deborah, who came up with incredible chalk drawings. After sending it out to publishers, and getting rejected, it sat on a shelf for 20 years until Tate published my first novel, CHRISSIE’S RUN. Then I realized it was time to bring out THE BABY SEA TURTLE.

ALLISON: What was your favorite part about writing The Baby Sea Turtle?

SUSAN: Seeing the beautiful illustrations that Deborah drew.

ALLISON: The worst?

SUSAN: Being rejected several times by publishers years ago.

ALLISON: What’s next?

SUSAN: BABCOCK, THE BARNYARD SHERIFF, a story about a special rooster that broke up fights between our alpacas.

BobbiePyronAs part of a virtual tour for A Dog’s Way Home, I interviewed Bobbie Pyron. Now on her fourth book, Pyron’s life took many twists and turns before she become a published author.

Animals, books, and family stories have always been a huge part of Pyron’s life. Everyone in her family loved animals. They always had a dog. They also made frequent trips to the zoo. Pyron and her father used to read the newspaper comics together before she started kindergarten. As for family stories, they seemed to provide a continuity in her otherwise fragmented life.

Her childhood was pretty hard. Pyron’s father died suddenly when she was seven. As a result, all of her books seem to explore loss. Pryon grew up a shy and quiet child who worried about many things.

As an adult, Pyron attended college and obtained degrees in psychology and anthropology. For a time, she sang in a rock and roll band. Then she went back to college, earned credentials as a librarian, and has been in this field for over twenty-five years. Eventually, Pyron sat down to write her first novel and in October 2009 became a published author.

Pyron’s titles to date are: The Ring, A Dog’s Way Home, Dogs in Winter, and Lucky Strike. The last I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: April 24!

ALLISON: Lucky Strike is about friendship. What is one of your memorable childhood friendships?

BOBBIE: I was a very shy child so most of my friends were either imaginary or dogs. My very best friend when I was young (from age 3 until I was about thirteen) was our beagle named Puck. He rarely ever left my side. I made mud pies for him, dressed him up in clothes, explored the back yard with him. Once he saved me from a rattlesnake. Once I got older—like seven and eight—I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted in our small Florida town as long as Puck was with me and I minded him!

ALLISON: Share a lucky moment of yours from growing up.

BOBBIE: I had a very difficult childhood after my father died when I was almost seven, so I don’t think I had many lucky moments. But I was sure lucky Puck saved me from that rattler!

ALLISON: In one interview, you noted that all of your books explore loss. Why? How do you feel that as a grown-up you’ve learned to deal with loss?

BOBBIE: When I was almost seven, my father was killed in a car accident. It was devastating for us! Losing a parent as a child to death is very different from losing a parent in divorce. And when it’s very sudden, it takes away your childhood. Nothing ever really feels safe again. I think, even as an adult, I still take loss of any kind very hard.

ALLISON: Lucky Strike has been described in places as magical realism, a departure from your other works. How has the process been different in writing realistic, historical, and now supernatural fiction?

BOBBIE: As a writer, I love to try new things, to challenge myself. So it was exciting fo me to play with magical realism in the book. It was a lot of fun! It really allowed me to not be so concrete and earthbound, yet at the same time, I had to keep my hand light—I didn’t want it to stray too far into real fantasy. I wanted the reader to wonder just a bit was it really the lightning strike that changed Nate or was it something more logical.

ALLISON: What inspired Lucky Strike?

BOBBIE: After my agent sold my 2012 book, The Dogs Of Winter, we talked about what I wanted to work on next. She mentioned that a lot of editors were looking for middle grade fiction with elements of magical realism. I’d just read a memoir by a woman who’d been struck by lightning several times and had lived. I started thinking about how surviving something like that could change a person and, of course, how something can happen in the blink of an eye that changes your life. I’d been eager to set a book in the area of Florida where I grew up. Seeing as how Florida is the number one lightning strike capitol of the United States, it was a natural fit!

ALLISON: Lucky Strike is your fourth book. How has life changed since the publication of your first book?

BOBBIE: Well, I signed with a wonderful agent just after my first book, The Ring, came out. That has made a huge difference on so many levels! She’s able to get my manuscripts in the hands of editors (like Arthur A. Levine) that wouldn’t look at my work otherwise. My books have also made it into some foreign markets too, especially A Dog’s Way Home. About a year and a half ago, I left the library system I’d worked in for twenty-five years so I could write full time. That’s had its pluses and minuses, but I still think of myself as a librarian who happens to write.

ALLISON: This is my second interview with you. Catch readers up on highlights from your life since we talked in 2011?

BOBBIE: Probably the two biggest “lights” was the publication of my book, The Dogs Of Winter (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books) and leaving my career as a librarian.

ALLISON: When not writing how do you spend your time?

BOBBIE: Outside, with my dogs, as much as I can! I love to hike, bike, and just wander around the woods. I also am quite involved in several animal rescue organizations in Utah.

ALLISON: What is a fun quirk about you?

BOBBIE: Like Gen in Lucky Strike, I’m a little bit OCD. When I’m at the gym and I’m doing repetitions of things (like sit-ups), I can’t end on an odd number unless it’s a multiple of five. I also can’t eat off certain colors of plates or bowls. I also have a music soundtrack constantly going in my head that I have no control over. It even plays when I’m asleep, sometimes so loud it wakes me up!

ALLISON: What’s the one question you have yet to be asked? What’s the answer?

BOBBIE: “If you weren’t an author, what would you be?” The answer: a mermaid.

NickBruelAuthor and illustrator of the Bad Kitty series and other best-selling books, Nick Bruel started out as a cartoonist. According to International Reading Association, He had some moderate success sending cartoons out to trade magazines and even managed to self-syndicate a weekly comic strip for two years. Although he never earned enough to support himself, he loved the work.

When Bruel gained employment in a small children’s bookstore in Manhattan, he discovered how much picture books and comics shared a similar language in the way text and illustrations work together to tell a story. Bruel had previously tried to publish children’s books and failed. While working in the Manhattan bookstore, Bruel became so saturated and educated in the picture book literary form that he tried again. This time it worked.

The idea for Bruel’s first Bad Kitty book came to Bruel much like all of his ideas, from the title. As for her personality, Bruel drew upon all of the different cats he has known throughout my life. He told Secret Files of Fair Day Morrow: “Cats are quite cool and aloof on the outside. But inside they are a neurotic mess. I can relate to that.”

The Bad Kitty books take between six and nine months to create. Bruel uses pencil, crow quill pen with waterproof ink, watercolor, and gouache paints for the illustrations.

Later in the week, I’ll share more about the creative device Bruel uses involving titles and review two of his other Bad Kitty books. Save the dates: October 29-31.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?

NICK: I’ve said this many times before, so I’ll say it here as well. I have two regrets in life–that my father never lived to see any of my books published, and that Shel Silverstein never lived to see any of my books published.

My father was a good guy and encouraged the radical lifestyle that I had been developing for myself as a cartoonist. He had a marvelous sense of humor that I definitely inherited.

Shelly, as I knew him, was a regular customer at a store where I worked, and he as well was a marvelous man. Oddly enough, I did not read his poetry collections as a child, but “The Giving Tree” was a book that both haunted and perplexed me in the most marvelous way when I was young. It still does today.

ALLISON: If you were to draw on an episode from your childhood to inspire a Bad Kitty story, what memory would you use?

NICK: I don’t know if there is a particular episode from my childhood that I can draw upon, but Bad Kitty herself is physically modeled after a cat we had when I was young named Zou-zou. She was actually the first cat I ever lived with, a stray that appeared in our back yard one day and decided to stay with us. She was small, even for a cat, and very feisty. And Zou-zou had the most marvelous design for a pussycat; she was black all over, blacker than midnight, all except for this single, elegant tuft of white fur on her upper chest. When I first contemplated what I wanted Bad Kitty to look like, I immediately thought of Zou-zou and her wonderful design.

ALLISON: When not creating books for young people, how do you like to spend your time?

NICK: I mostly think of this whole children’s-book-author-and-illustrator gig as a part-time job. My full-time job, the one that takes up most of my time, is that of Daddy for my daughter Izzy. I really do enjoy our one-on-one time together. So, really, making these books is what I do when I have spare time from being with Izzy.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: Besides the cats you have known, who most inspires your ideas for Bad Kitty?

NICK: Actually, cats don’t inspire the stories for my books as much as you might think. I really don’t think of Kitty as a cat so much as I think of her as a little kid who happens to be shaped like a cat.

I don’t think there is any one thing that inspires my ideas. Mostly, when I’m in need of ideas, I find myself just sitting back and contemplating anything and everything that comes to mind. Not the most provocative answer, I know, but an honest one.

ALLISON: What do you think is the appeal of Bad Kitty to those kids who have autism or aspergers?

NICK: Starting about 5 years ago, I started received multiple emails from parents and teachers of kids on the Asperger’s end of the Autism spectrum. Simultaneously, I began meeting those same kinds of kids at public events. A pattern was beginning to develop, so I decided to correspond with those parents who were open to it and find out what they thought Bad Kitty’s appeal was to those kids. I received two answers from them, both of which surprise me.

First, they told me that their kids really responded to Kitty’s facial features and expressions. This surprised me because it was counterintuitive to what people think about autistic kids, that they do not interpret or respond to facial expressions, that they find them too subtle and confusing. All of this is true, but apparently with Kitty’s face this was not the case. Kitty’s face is static on the page.

Her face usually takes on extreme expressions, so there is little doubt about what emotion she’s trying to convey. And it probably helps that her face is depicted in black and white to further make her expressions distinct.

The second thing I learned, and apparently this came from the kids themselves, was that they thought Bad Kitty herself was autistic. I think it’s natural for readers to identify with characters that appeal to them, but there was some real reasoning behind their thoughts. Kitty does not like change. Kitty often takes things quite literally. What may be obvious to others, is not obvious to Kitty. I certainly was not conscious of having created an autistic character, but if this is how she is interpreted, then it’s an interpretation I will embrace.

ALLISON: Obviously your Bad Kitty books are designed to entertain. Do you think there are also lessons which young people might gain from them?

NICK: I think children’s book authors tread on a slippery slope when they become conscious of trying to convey a lesson in their work. More often than not, the lesson can distract from the story itself. Having said that, the only book I’ve written in which I was conscious of conveying a lesson would be Bad Kitty: Drawn To Trouble. This Bad Kitty book about how to write a Bad Kitty book is my attempt to encourage kids to write their own stories. In many ways, I do consider this one to be the most important book I’ve ever made.

ALLISON: If readers were to search out books of yours beyond Bad Kitty, which one would you most like them to find?

NICK: I think my book A Wonderful Year which comes out in early January would be the book I’d suggest. It’s my first non-Bad Kitty book in about five years, and it’s one that I’m extremely proud of. The notion for this book came to me one morning when I contemplated what I might have done had I been asked to create a Nutshell Library much like Maurice Sendak and Hilary Knight had once been asked to do. The result is this book, four short stories inside one picture book about a girl and the wonderful things that happen to her during each season of the year.

Thank you for the great questions.

SaraZarrInterviewI’ll read anything by Sara Zarr. Until recently, the entire list of her books was on my wish list. Not to read. But to buy. I’m that much of a fan. And now every single one of books, including three which are signed, are on my shelves. Not only do I love her books, but she’s an inspiration to me as a creative person. She knows what it’s like to experience rejection but to persevere. Fear is also not unknown to her, but she also has worked past it to find the courage to keep putting her words and beliefs on paper. As you can imagine then, my skin tingled when I got the chance to interview her. 🙂

ALLISON: You are my favorite current author. Not only because of the great books you’ve written, but also because of the advice you’ve given to struggling writers. Many authors have shared their difficulties in getting published, but few speak of the challenges that follow. You’ve talked about if one is ever going to get past the beginning stages of writing, “one has to learn to live with what really amounts to a constant state of failure”. How did you learn to live with failure?

SARA: Thanks for your kind words about my work. As for failure, I think “failure” can be a harsh word and I don’t mean it in the accusatory sense. I mean that there is always a gap between the original vision for the work and the finished work. You try to get as close as you can using every tool at your disposal. I don’t know if I’ve learned to happily live with the gap, but I accept that it’s there while also trying to close it. That’s just part of the deal when you want to create something that starts out only existing in your imagination.

ALLISON: In one interview, you said that you didn’t start thinking of writing as a career until college. What were other career options you considered and/or pursued?

SARA: I wasn’t a person with any career dreams or goals, and that had a lot to do with complicated family-of-origin issues. For me, success would be paying my bills on time and avoiding poverty with some sort of job that I didn’t hate. Letting myself dream of a real career I could actually love and be good at took some time. Meanwhile, I made ends meet with some jobs I did enjoy but weren’t going to go anywhere – admin jobs, food service jobs, etc. It wasn’t until I met authors myself (in my mid-twenties) that I realized authors weren’t magical privileged people. They were regular people who wanted to write and practiced it enough to become good. When I realized that, it became possible for me.

ALLISON: In an article you wrote for Hunger Mountain, you said: “My previous books featured small stories about everyday life. This one had a certain feeling of largeness and importance that scared me.” Which type of book do you prefer to write? Why?

SARA: I think that quote may have referred to Once Was Lost. And in the end, that also turned out to be a story of everyday life and family, but it had a bigger and more dramatic context (a missing girl, big questions about life and faith). No matter what I write, it will always wind up being somehow about the meaning in everyday life and our closest, most regular relationships–friends and family. No matter how “big” the concept or the backdrop, I’m pretty sure those will always be my stories because I personally believe in the meaning to be found in those things. It’s exciting to read about big mysteries, apocalypses, hauntings, crimes, and epic romances. But in the end our lives our made up of the small, daily stuff, and I never get tired of exploring those small things and trying to see the hugeness that lies inside.

ALLISON: Your characters tend to be flawed, the type of characters that one could dislike. But you always make them likeable. How do you find the balance between creating a character who is very human but also gains reader sympathy?

SARA: My editors are always help in this. Usually in early drafts, my characters flaws are completely running the show. In revision, I look for the humanity in everyone (even the “bad guys”) and try to give each character a moment of being her best self. I think that helps the reader see who the character tries and hopes to be, and can sympathize and cheer them on.

ALLISON: As someone who is both an author and a college writing teacher, what advice would you give to grade-school teachers of struggling/reluctant writers?

SARA: I don’t really feel qualified to speak to this–teaching for an MFA program is a lot different from teaching elementary school! But, probably the most important thing is to avoid labeling the kid as a non-reader or struggling writer. When appropriate, less focus on trying to get kids to like certain kinds of books and less focus on grammar and spelling would probably help them gain confidence. I think once they get a fear of doing it “wrong” when it comes to reading and creative writing, that just shuts them down. Maybe if grammar and mechanics could be separated from creative assignments, that wouldn’t happen so much. If you give kids a “tell a story” assignment, don’t write corrections all over it. Comment on the story, and encourage the imagination. And don’t give up on helping them find books they do enjoy reading. Those are my thoughts.

ALLISON: I also like that your books raise questions about faith. Why did you make the choice to not provide answers to these questions?

SARA: Probably because I don’t know the answers!

ALLISON: What made you decide to co-author Roomies?

SARA: It was a fun diversion from the contracted books I had to write. We kept the project secret until we’d written two drafts of it, so the writing of it involved no pressure. And I’ve always admired Tara’s writing. We tried it as almost an experiment, and it just sort of worked!

ALLISON: Surely you and Tara did not agree on everything. How did you resolve your differences?

SARA: We had very little discussion about each other’s sections. The nature of the story meant we didn’t have to actually coordinate the plot very much–our threads were pretty separate. We didn’t give each other notes, and we didn’t communicate about the plot unless we absolutely had to. Then we left the more critical eye to our editor.

ALLISON: Some authors become so sought after that they stop being available to readers. In one interview you said that a favorite part of being an author is hearing from readers. How do you find the time?

SARA: Truly, I am not inundated with communication like so many authors. I completely understand why some authors just can’t even reply to anything. It’s every author’s right to choose how to deal with reader communication. Also true: as I’ve gotten busier, I’m less good at responding to every single letter or email I do get. I try, and really appreciate the letters, but the work always comes first. I enjoy twitter for this. Getting a tweet in appreciation of one of my books is fun, and pretty easy to respond to if I catch it.

Sticky Icky Booger Bugs by Sherry Frith is about a day in the life of a young boy living with Cystic Fibrosis. Because of the subject matter, I expected it to be educational. And it is. Although the whimsical title and illustrations should have given me a clue, I was also pleasantly surprised by how cute Frith’s picture book is.

Frith wrote Sticky Icky Booger Bugs after two of her own sons were diagnosed with this chronic disease for which there currently is no cure. She starts by introducing us to Kory, for whom sticky icky booger bugs are a way of life. He wakes up every morning by coughing and sneezing them out. Throughout the rest of the day, Kory has a medical routine which involves an inhaler, an automated external defibrillator, lots of pills, and even a daily glass of orange juice to help him maintain adequate amount of water and salt. Kory’s evening routine involves more coughing and sneezing, along with a salt wash and additional medication. Anyone reading Kory’s story will gain a clear idea of what his disease involves, along with how carefully it must be treated.

Title aside, Sticky Icky Booger Bugs could have described Cystic Fibrosis as dry facts or even in a heavy-handed style. Instead Frith put a lot of thought into how to describe the disease in terms that both her boys and other young people could understand, and the result is an engaging narrative. Frith succeeds in her goal, partly because of the kid-friendly words she uses to describes Kory’s routines. For example, Kory refers to the an automated external defibrillator as a “shaker” because it “shakes, shakes, shakes, and shakes some more”. Frith also succeeds, because of her ability to get inside the heads of young people. Kory admits to getting bored with the automated external defibrillator and says, “After what feels like forever, I am finished shaking. Hip, hip, hooray!” Kory also reveals that he can sometimes be stubborn about the smoker, which is a machine that gives him a salt solution, and so his mom has to put a nose clip on his nose to keep in the medication. On the positive side, Kory loves getting to drink chocolate milk to swallow his pills. Kory also enjoys the back rub his mom gives him at night to help him sleep. Sticky Icky Booger Bugs is an uplifting and easy-to-read picture book that young people can enjoy, whether or not they suffer from Cystic Fibrosis.

Now for my main quibble with Sticky Icky Booger Bugs. The price. Sticky Icky Booger Bugs is a paperback whose content takes only twenty-four pages, but it sells for $17. Ouch! Classic picture books such as those by Dr. Seuss are selling for $10 or less, including the hardcover version. Even newer best-selling books such as This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen are selling for a similar price. Now both of these aforementioned examples are fiction. What about nonfiction? I looked up another book which I have reviewed, Bog Bodies by James Deem, and discovered that the paperback version also sells for about $10. Only if one gets hardcover is the price more and then it’s still about $15. I understand that Sticky Icky Booger Bugs will likely have a limited audience appeal and therefore the price needs to be higher to break even on costs. At the same time, that hefty price is probably going to also turn off many potential buyers and that is unfortunate.

Cystic Fibrosis is a term I have heard thrown around, but until reading Sticky Icky Booger Bugs had honestly not really understood. Now I not only have a clearer picture of what the disease involves, I’m also aware of what goes into its treatment. For anyone with an interest in the topic, the e-reader version is only $5 and makes a reasonable purchase.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


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