Author Interview: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Why did you choose tell “Jefferson’s Sons” through the eyes of three characters?
This was mostly a decision based on structure. As I did the research for this book, the time frame kept expanding. I could see how the world in which Beverly spent his early years, at Monticello during the relative stillness of Jefferson’s Presidency, was very different from that in which Maddy grew up, after Jefferson’s retirement, when visitors flocked to the farm. I wanted to contrast those differences. But I also really, really, wanted to tell what I saw as the natural end of the story–that horrifying auction after Jefferson’s death–and, by that point, Beverly is long gone, and Maddy fully grown. Peter Fossett actually left a written account of his childhood at Monticello, a terrific first-person source for those final years. To start where I wanted to start, I had to be in Beverly’s voice–he’s really the only one old enough to carry the story–and at the end, I had to be in Peter’s voice, as he’s the only one left.

Theoretically I could have stayed with just those two, but there’s another problem: I wanted this book to reach middle school audiences. To do that, I have to keep a certain level of innocence in the discourse. Some of the topics we cover would be viewed and discussed very differently by adult narrators, and the minute I slide into an adult point-of-view I run the danger of losing of either being untruthful to the history, or writing something inappropriate for a fifth-grader to read. When I split the narrative three ways, so that each voice begins at around age 7 and continues into early teens (a bit younger for Peter), I could cover the ground I wanted to cover, and still write the book I wanted to write.

Please note that if this hadn’t been based so strongly on historical facts I wouldn’t have done it this way. If it were straight fiction–I was making all this up–I’d have used one narrator and a much shorter time frame. Easier on everyone. But the biggest strength of the book is that is very much based on fact.

Do you have a favorite scene in this book?
Hmm. I’d have to go with the ending–very hard to write, and it’s certainly not the happiest scene, but I was really pleased with how I got it in the end. I think it has a rhythm that suits the action.

What was one of the most unexpected facts or stories you uncovered while researching for “Jefferson’s Sons”?
There are simply tons of good stories, many of which couldn’t make it into the book. For example, Joe Fossett’s older brother Daniel, who is very briefly mentioned as having been sold away why Joe was a small boy, actually bought Wormley Hughes at the auction. He bought him for a dollar and gave him his freedom. Where Daniel had been living and how he gained his own freedom are completely unknown–from a historical point of view, he appears, then disappears again.

Part way through my research, the historians at Monticello found evidence that Patsy Fossett gained her freedom as an adult–she comes up in Census records in 1830, in Cincinnati, which is where many of the Fossetts were living, including Joe and Edith. Prior to a few years ago, she was “lost” from a historical point of view–no one knew what had happened to her.

Do you have plans for another historical fiction?
I’m in the middle of a book set in England during World War II. It features wholly fictional characters, more like my book Weaver’s Daughter than Jefferson’s Sons.

What advice would you give to a person trying to become a fiction writer?
Read everything you can. Especially read writers you admire. Write, but don’t be too eager for publication–publication is really hard, and rejection is really discouraging, and at the start you just need to write for yourself, nobody else. Forget “write what you know.” Write what you want to read.

Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I’m really pleased at how many people are reading and responding to Jefferson’s Sons. It’s been a really good journey. Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, and for caring about my book.

Thank you for joining us on this blog! I’m looking forward to reading your new books in the future.

Visit Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Website
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Author Interview: Lea Wait

Over the years I have enjoyed all four of Lea Wait’s historical novels for young people. Last Friday I reviewed Finest Kind here on my blog. Today it is my privileged to introduce Lea for this interview.

What parts of Finest Kind are factual?
The background of FINEST KIND is accurate: because of the Panic of 1837, banks failed in Boston and other cities, there was widespread unemployment, and many families were in dire circumstances, as Jake’s family was. The acceptance (or, rather, lack of acceptance) of those born with physical or mental disabilities is accurate for that period. A little later in the nineteenth century there were institutions where families sent those with mental disabilities, but in 1837 such individuals were kept at home and hidden, or, as in Simon’s case, found a place within the community.

Wiscasset was, and is, a real town, and many of the people in FINEST KIND did live and work there. Dr. Theobold (who also appeared in my book WINTERING WELL) was the town doctor, and Thursey Seigars was his housekeeper. The minister, the shopkeepers, and other local people are real characters. Most notably, everyone who worked at (or who was incarcerated in) the Wiscasset Jail was a real person, including Samuel Holbrook, the jailer who also was a school master, and his wife Lucy and their children. The jail and jailer’s home did burn down December 3, 1838, and Lucy Holbrook, her children, and the inmates of the jail, were all saved by students who saw the flames on their way to school that morning.

The other characters in the book are fictional, although there were people like them in 1838 Wiscasset.

Out of all your historical books for young people, who is your favorite character? Why?
Who is my favorite fictional character? That’s an impossible question! It’s like asking me which of my children I like the best! I did love writing Granny McPherson, in FINEST KIND.

In general, I love my characters who are survivors; who find out their decisions can control their lives even in the worst circumstances.

They would include Abbie, in STOPPING TO HOME, who comes up with an ingenious solution to keeping what is left of her family together. Michael/Noah (he even changes his name to survive) in SEAWARD BORN, who gives up all he knows and loves for a chance at freedom. Will, in WINTERING WELL, who refuses to believe his life is over when he loses a leg in an accident. And Jake and Nabbie in FINEST KIND, both of whom are proud and stubborn and refuse to give up even when it seems impossible for them to take care of their families.

What is your favorite location in Wiscasset?
My favorite location in Wiscasset is, I’ll admit, that jail, which really is on Federal Street in Wiscasset.

The jail that is there now is the one built in 1839 to replace the one that burned in 1838. I first visited it when I was about ten years old and can still remember how cold and still those old cells were. How horrible it must have been to have been imprisoned there.

Now I sometimes give tours of the jail myself, and love pointing out the bars that one prisoner tried to saw through, and the drawings of a schooner another prisoner made on a whitewashed cell wall. The cells are dark and cold. Granite doesn’t burn, so the walls are the same ones Jake would have seen, and the worn stone floors are the same ones Sam Holbrooke and his wife Lucy walked on. I like feeling that through FINEST KIND many people who’ve never been able to visit a jail like this one in person have been able, through Jake, to find out a little about what it was like to live through hard times in the 1830s.

Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
We have some of the same problems today that people had then. Families still have secrets. People are still born with disabilities. We still have bullies. People still make fun of other people they don’t understand. There are still parents who can’t find jobs and parents who drink too much.

Writing about problems doesn’t solve them. But sometimes it’s easier to see problems from a distance. That’s what I hope my books will do: open windows to the past, and show how real people, with real lives, and real problems, lived then. They survived their problems, and we will survive ours.

Someday, when my younger readers now are grown, maybe one of them will write an historical novel set in 2012, and one of their young readers will wonder how people ever coped in the old days.

It could happen.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers, Lea!

Author Interview: Bobbie Pyron

Last Friday I posted a book review for A Dog’s Way Home. This book is the story of a Sheltie’s journey back to his beloved girl. Today, author Bobbie Pyron is here to answer a few questions.

What gave you the inspiration for A Dog’s Way Home?
I like to say A Dog’s Way Home is my personal love letter to my dogs and to all the classic dog books I read growing up, like Lassie Come-Home and The Incredible Journey. It’s a celebration of the two things I have always loved most in the world since I was a child: books and dogs. It was inspired specifically by two of my dogs, my Shetland Sheepdog, Teddy, and my coyote mix, Boo. I started thinking about the story one day when I was hiking with the two of them way up in the mountains. I watched how differently they interacted with their environment and with me-—Boo always off-trail where I can’t see her, hunting, and Teddy never farther than six feet from me. I asked myself, “What if they had to survive on their own in the wilderness?” I knew Boo would be okay, at least physically. But Teddy was another story. So A Dog’s Way Home is his story!

Tell us a little bit about Shelties. What are some of their characteristics? What makes them unique?
Shelties were originally bred as herding dogs on the wild and cold Shetland Islands off the northern end of Scotland. They herded sheep mostly, and they also served as sentry dogs, alerting the crofters when a stranger came on their land. They’re a tough little breed. They are also extremely loyal and very smart. They bond strongly to their people but can be aloof with strangers. They also, generally speaking, are great family dogs. They’re not for everybody, though: they shed a lot and they bark a lot!

I can certainly relate to the shedding and barking! My Sheltie, Lady, seems to have missed the part about being aloof with strangers, though. 🙂

How long did “A Dog’s Way Home” take you to write?
It took about nine months to write the first draft. I tend to edit as I go along. Plus, I still work a day job (I’m a librarian in my “other life”). That first draft was followed by quite a number of revisions and rejections. From first draft to publication in March of 2011, it took about three years. Being an author is not for the faint of heart, nor for the impatient.

Tell us about your next book, “The Dogs of Winter”.
The Dogs of Winter is based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, a very young homeless child in Russia. The book takes place in Moscow in the mid-1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Although we tend to think of the Soviet Union’s fall as a good thing, it was devastating to the people of Russia. As a result, there were tens of thousands of homeless children and teens living and doing their best to survive on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Unlike most of the homeless kids, Ivan did not join one of the many gangs of children living in the underground railway stations. Instead, he was adopted by a pack of feral street dogs and lived with them for two years. My book is a fictionalized account of those two years. My editor, Arthur A. Levine, says it’s a mash-up of Oliver Twist and Julie of the Wolves. But it’s also an exploration of what makes us human and what defines “family.” It’ll be published by Scholastic October 1st.

Thank you for your time, Bobbie!

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Author Interview: Anna Myers

Happy 4th of July! When I asked Anna Myers to do a interview on this day, I wasn’t thinking about it being Independence Day. It is really quite appropriate, though. Anna’s book, Spy!, which I reviewed last Friday is about Nathan Hale, a great patriot who gave his life for our country.

What made you decide to write Spy?
I happened to be discussing history with a young man named Nathan when I learned he had no knowledge of Nathan Hale. After the conversation, I did a little research and discovered how young he was when he died and that he had been a teacher. The story began to form in my mind almost immediately.

What gave you the inspiration for Jonah and his side of the story?
After I leaned that Hale was a teacher, a boy from his class just seemed natural. I listened to songs from that time period and that part of the country. Several of the songs were about whaling and the back story about Jonah’s father began to grow. Music always helps my imagination work.

What message would you like readers to take away from this book?
I always want my readers to realize that history is made by real people, and I want them to feel connected to the past. In this particular story, I also hoped that they would see the British side of the conflict also.

Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
When I write a story, the characters become very real to me even the ones that are totally fiction. I once had my hand on a Christmas gift I intended to buy for a character in the book on which I was writing. It was a book about marble collecting, and the character had a marble collection. Nathan Hale was buried in New York. No one knows exactly where. Now when I walk the streets of that city, I often wonder if he is buried beneath my feet.

Thanks so much for the interview, Anna!

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Author Interview: Pat Hughes

Last Friday I posted a review of Breaker Boys. There are two reasons I think I enjoyed Breaker Boys so much. Nate and Johnny (the main characters) are interesting and easy to root for. The second reason I liked it so much was it introduced me to a world I had never considered before–coal mining. The history of coal mining is amazingly interesting. Today Pat Hughes, the author of Breaker Boys, is here to answer a few questions. Thank you, Pat!

What gave you the idea for this story?
After I had been married to my husband, Sam, for a few years, I learned that his family had owned coal mines in the Hazleton, Pa., area back in the 1800s and early 1900s. It seemed to be something that the family was almost ashamed of in the present day, because of the stereotype that the coal operators had exploited the poor immigrants. As I began to research, I found that there was a lot more to it than that. The more I learned about the miners and the owners, the more I needed to write the story. It became important to me to tell all three sides – “yours, mine, and the truth,” as Mary tells Nate in the book.

What are some of the challenges you face being an author?
The biggest challenge for me as an author continues to be how to get my books into the public eye. I’m not a self-promoter; never have been. I love to sit alone in a room and write. I hate to go to conferences and shmooze, I hate to bang my own drum all over the Internet, I hate to call/email people and beg them to write about my books. Yet it’s the writers who consistently do those things whose books get noticed. I don’t aim to be a big commercial success a la JK Rowling or the authors of the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” series. I would hate being famous! But I would like my books to be better known. And that is very hard to do.

What advice would you give to a person trying to become a fiction writer?
1) Read a lot and write a lot. That’s how you develop a style and it’s how you improve.
2) Only write a story because you have to, not because you merely want to, or think you should for some reason. When I write it’s never “I want to write a book about a boy whose family owns coal mines,” it’s “OMG, I have no choice but to write a book about a boy whose family owns coal mines.”
3) View self-publishing options as your last resort. I think too many people today just want to see themselves published any way they can without working hard enough to be really good. Your goal should be to get so good that somebody pays YOU for the stuff you write … not that you pay somebody else to publish you.

Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I love historical fiction so much, and I just wish more people, especially young people, shared this passion. It’s distressing to me that most young people only seem to want to read about wizards, fairies, elves, vampires, werewolves … and depressing dystopian future societies! But there are so many rich, colorful, fascinating stories in the past. That’s why it’s especially exciting to me when a young person like you contacts me about one of my books. It’s great to know there are some kids out there who keep their minds open to historical novels. So thank you for letting me know how much you like “The Breaker Boys,” and thanks for having me on your blog.

Thank you for joining me on my blog!

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