Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Sunday, December 13, 2009
I’ve been writing this way for about five years. Poetry came naturally to me, but my poems were considered too long. I had ideas for big stories that demanded novel-length page counts, so…novels in verse might be an obvious solution, but it still took me a long time to figure it out.
Tell me a little about the historical background for Three Rivers Rising.
In the late 1800s railroads were connecting disparate regions of the U.S. and demand for steel was high. Newly moneyed Pittsburgh steel tycoons took their families to vacation in the Allegheny Mountains. A number of them bought shares in a summer resort called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which consisted of a clubhouse, stables, some private cottages and a reservoir held back by an earthen dam.
In the valley below, the city of Johnstown was home to Cambria Iron Works. Mills, stores, hotels, churches, homes, schools: Johnstown was an up-and-coming seat of industry. On the downside, Johnstown was built on lowlands surrounded by rivers and flooding was an expected part of every spring.
Back up in the mountains, over-logging had increased the danger of flash floods, and the design of the dam had been compromised over the years, leaving no way to compensate for sudden increases of water. An unusually rainy spring in 1889 caused the flawed dam to fail, releasing millions of tons of water into the valley, creating an avalanche of debris, and scouring the land down to bare rock in many cases. Deaths total approximately 2,200.
How do you go about your research for your historical fiction?
A story like this, one that surrounds a heavily-documented historical event, has a lot of the research built in: books, documentaries, easy to find. When the story takes place in an arbitrary time frame, it’s trickier. I like to read first-person accounts whenever possible, especially letters. Newspapers are good, too. You can get the flavor of a time period. I keep a dictionary tab open on my computer to look up the dates words came into use. I also like to read census reports…see who was at the Alms House or the Orphan Asylum, good for cranking up the old backstory machine.
Have you always been a writer?
No. I can’t say it was always my intention to be a writer, but I did always make up stories. When my friends and I played house or school or Electro-Woman and Dyna-Girl, it was always up to me to narrate the action and feed everybody their lines! How did I not know I was going to be a writer—everybody else did.
Who are your inspirations?
Patricia Reilly Giff, Karen Hesse, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Judy Blume, Louise Erdrich, Jacqueline Woodson.
What were your favorite books as a child? As an adult?
I have a deep and enduring love for my long lost copy of Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. It was the paperback with the girl sitting at the mirror, placing a hibiscus into her corona of braids. I “loaned” it to somebody. If you’re reading this, and you have my copy of Sally, please return it! Or face the consequences…dunh, dunh, duhhhh.
Other favorites, as you might expect: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The House Without a Christmas Tree, and Mandy. Also, my school librarian forbade me from taking out Flicka, Ricka and Dicka even one more time, or the somber-brown hardcover Marnie.
My favorite books now are Nory Ryan’s Song and Maggie’s Door, Out of the Dust and Aleutian Sparrow, The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.
I also love a little sumpin called Also Known as Harper, ever heard of it?
You have two young daughters. What are five books that you hope they will read?
Mine, for starters! (Actually my older daughter already read it. And gave it a positive review in her school newspaper, thank goodness!) And they’ve already listened to Judy Blume reading Sally, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would. It has become the gold standard for audio books in our house.
1. Anne of Green Gables, the series even, such a big part of my childhood reading those with my mom and sisters.
2. The Little House series—I think about the pioneers everyday and I want my children to know me that way.
3. Almost as often, I think about Anne Frank (Diary of a Young Girl) and I hope they’ll read her words and care deeply.
4. Patricia Reilly Giff’s historical novels which mirror the experiences of our own Irish ancestor (Nory Ryan’s Song and Maggie’s Door), my grandmother growing up in the tenements (A House of Tailors and Water Street), all the way down to my mother (Lily’s Crossing and Willow Run) as a child of World War II. (I know I’m cheating by counting a body of work as one entry on the list!)
5. Along the same line, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My grandmother said after reading it, “That’s exactly how it was!” My daughters didn’t get to meet my grandmother, but they can meet Francie Nolan.
Can you talk about your work-in-progress?
My next manuscript is about one of the many young Irish women who came to the U.S. in the wave of immigration to work as domestics, known as Bridgets. There’s talk of fairies and visions, witches vs. wise women, and tea leaves and typhoid.
Jame has never been one for BSP (BlatantSelfPromotion), so I need to tell everyone that this book was the 2008 winner of the PEN New England Children's Book Caucus Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award...
Monday, December 7, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
Monday, November 16, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Who doesn't need a little help from their friends? Those of us who know Susan VanHecke as a music journalist and the co-author of ROCK 'N' ROLL SOLDIER wouldn't be surprised to see her pen a story about the Beatles. In AN APPLE PIE FOR DINNER (Marshall Cavendish, 2009), Van Hecke journeys across genres to the English countryside.
A picture book seems so completely different from what I’ve seen you do. Is this something you have thought about doing for a while?
You know, I never even considered writing children's books until I became a mom. Four years ago, when my kids were 2 and 4, I was reading a ton of picture books. Some I loved, others I thought were pretty lame. So I thought I'd give it a try.
Coming from the world of grown-up book publishing, I knew I'd have to streamline my writing style. To practice, I took several of my favorite folktales and retold them. I tried to use as few words as possible, and tweaked details – characters, settings, action – to update the stories.
An Apple Pie For Dinner was one of those exercises. Marshall Cavendish bought it as an easy reader and asked fabric artist Carol Baicker-McKee to create the amazing 3D bas-relief illustrations. I never, ever dreamed that my less-is-more writing exercise would become such a beautiful picture book!
You have written a lot about the music business and rock and roll, in particular. Are you a musician?
I come from a musical family. My mom is a church organist, choir director, and piano teacher. My dad has a beautiful tenor voice and sings all the time at church. My older and youngest brothers play drums. My other younger brother is a professional guitar player. I took piano lessons for many long years growing up, and also played clarinet and bassoon in school band.
While I was studying film at New York University, I did an internship at Island Records, then went to work at a music industry PR firm in NYC after graduating. There, it finally dawned on me that I could actually make money doing the thing I loved most – writing – about a topic near and dear to my heart – music. I became a freelance music journalist, an article turned into my first book, and it kind of took off from there.
I must confess, though, that I haven't touched a piano – other than to dust it – in years!
You must have come across some interesting people while doing your nonfiction research work. What is one of the most memorable things that you discovered?
While working on The Girl In The Box, my historical fiction for middle-graders, I learned that my ancestors in western New York were abolitionists. Not only were they abolitionists, they were "stationmasters" on the Underground Railroad, hiding fugitive slaves under their farmhouse and in a swamp on their property. This was at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law, where harbored runaways were considered stolen property. My relatives risked their livelihood, prison time – perhaps even their lives – to help slaves to freedom. It still blows my mind, and makes me so proud.
You mentioned on your website that you often work with a co-author and help people tell their own stories. What is one story that has stuck in your mind?
Actually, I worked on two books back-to-back that touched me deeply. The first was Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out, the memoir of rock photographer Tom Wright, who befriended guitarist Pete Townshend at Ealing Art School before Pete formed a band called the Who. Tom would go on to travel with the Who and other famous rock bands – the Stones, Faces, Joe Walsh, the Eagles – shooting the most extraordinary pix (now a part of the collection at the Center for American History) and developing them in hotel bathrooms.
It was probably inevitable, but Tom wound up with a major drinking problem. There's a point in the book where he's sleeping on the gravel floor of a friend's garage, living on red wine and cigarettes, estranged from his wife and son, questioning his art and his life. Such giant talent, such enormous sadness. Thankfully, Tom pulled himself together, but re-living that time with him was very painful.
After Roadwork wrapped, I went straight to work on Rock 'N' Roll Soldier, a Vietnam War memoir for young adults I co-wrote with veteran Dean Ellis Kohler. The things those young soldiers – teens, a lot of them, like Dean – were forced to see and do just broke my heart. No wonder they didn't, and still don't, want to talk about it. It's indescribable.
Dean had repressed some devastating memories and I hated having to make him relive them. On the other hand, my hunch is that our dredging up those experiences together and making them public, sharing them, trying to make sense of them via the book, might have actually been helpful (Dean's such a stoic, I'm not sure he'd tell me if that were the case or not).
Regardless, our veterans – of all wars – deserve our utmost gratitude for what they've endured and sacrificed for our country.
THE GIRL IN THE BOX has such an intriguing title! Can you tell us a little about it.?
It's based on the true story of a 7-year old slave girl who, with her pregnant mother, hid for 21 days in a wooden box in the back of a horse-drawn produce cart as they were smuggled from the Washington, D.C. area to Warsaw, New York. The plan of those who helped them was, no doubt, to get them to Canada. But when they arrived in Warsaw, the mother gave birth to a son – in my ancestors' kitchen! – then died soon after of tuberculosis.
Since there was no way an infant and a 7-year old, both considered fugitives, could fend for themselves in Canada, the Warsaw townsfolk rallied around the children and raised them as their own. Like all who assisted runaways at that time, these people were putting themselves and their families at great risk in order to do the right thing.
The girl grew up to become a beloved member of the community and married a cousin of W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP. It's really an incredible story.
The research for this book has been especially challenging, though, as not many records were kept regarding the Underground Railroad. It was just too dangerous for all involved. So I've been digging extra-deep – which I really enjoy. I almost turned a cartwheel when I discovered the pair's actual "runaway" advertisement in an 1850 newspaper!
If you weren’t a writer and editor, what would you be?
Maybe an architectural historian. I'm a sucker for old houses, have renovated two. I live in an historic neighborhood, and want to adopt every "stray" home in the area – you know, those grand old beauties that just need a little love?
For fun, I like to research the homes' histories – who built them, who owned them, who welcomed new babies and saw relatives off to war and celebrated graduations and weddings in them. I know, it sounds a little crazy. I'm a certified research-aholic!
Monday, November 2, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The dinner table at our house was centrally located, with the kitchen behind my dad, and the living room television directly behind me. There was a definite routine to it. My brothers and I sat in the same places and the television was always on, permanently tuned in to the evening news, which was the closest I ever got to Vietnam.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
The building was different. It was just a few feet from the one I remembered, but it was still the Auburn Public Library and it was where I got my first library card.
Friday, July 31, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
Only five and a half hours until ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER! Oh...wait...I guess that's only a Twilight/Harry Potter thing. I don't think there's a midnight release party...I could, however, push back the basketball hoop and arrange one in my driveway. I might be able to get a few random neighbors and family members to come out...
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Happy Birthday, Harper Lee! Today she is 83. Thanks to my friend, Waterford Public Library children's librarian, Nadine Lipman, for letting me know!
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Today is the first in (I hope!) a series of interviews with my FabulousAuthorFriends. My first interview is with fellow 2k9er, Sydney Salter.