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Interviews with moi

(scroll down for the second interview) (plus check out these:)

•  Dairy Queen >>

•  The Off Season >>

•  Front and Center >>

  1. Princess Ben >>

  2. Wisdom’s Kiss >>

  3. Heaven is Paved with Oreos >> or this >>

  4. on writing generally, and the writing process >>

With Jo Frost of ABC’s Supernanny

First off, can you tell me a little something about the photo [above left]? (It’s from your family vacation in Wyoming). What where you guys up to? Were you having fun?

Well, some of us were having fun. Those are the Tetons in the background, viewed from the Red Hills on the east side of Jackson Hole. The hike was only about two miles long but with a 2000-foot rise, quite challenging for everyday trekkers like us. About three quarters of the way up Mimi called it quits. We had to bribe and cajole and browbeat her the final quarter mile to the ridge. Then of course she sprinted the whole way down.

As the author of books for young adults, how important is reading in your house?

Extremely. Both kids were late readers – various reading challenges that we luckily caught in third grade rather than tenth – but they’re now off and running. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to have Mimi ask me to keep it down because she’s reading – it’s like the best thing you’ve ever wished for in your life finally coming true. That said, we all four of us mostly read kids’ lit. I’d like to say it’s out of professional responsibility but really we just love it.

How do you find the time to write? Is it something you build into your schedule and strictly adhere to or do you work it around taking your kids to school, activities, etc?

Writers who diligently compose every day awe me. I have trouble getting dressed every day. Thank God I don’t have a real desk job. Plus I can only do one task at a time. Doesn’t matter what it is – loading the dishwasher, finishing a sudoku, writing a novel – I’m not so graceful with interruptions. This isn’t such a big issue with sudokus, but it does make writing a bit challenging. Princess Ben, which is coming out in March 2008, I wrote in two weeks flat, during which time we survived on takeout and buttered noodles. Then I go months just writing emails and all the completing all my writing-related jobs: editing and re-working the latest manuscript, writing flap copy (which I adore) and other marketing material, and thinking Deep Thoughts about the next story.

What is your office/space set up like (work from home, office?) Do you receive the occasional kid interruptions? If so, how do you deal with them?

One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t write with kids in the house. There’s just that little vibrating knowledge in the back of my consciousness that I will be interrupted without warning . . . that combined with procrastination makes it impossible. So I write while the kids are in school, and keep them in after-school care, heartless mother that I am. Occasionally when the muse – or more usually a deadline – visits, I check into a hotel for a couple of days. I’m hoping to do that for the third Dairy Queen book, which means that I’ve first got to complete all my research. . . so it may not happen. My son once asked me not to write any more books because I get too distracted. But I think he’ll survive.

When writing the central character of your books, D.J. did you take any specific attributes from your children and incorporate them into the character?

I don’t think so. My kids were pretty young when I began writing D.J.’s story, still far from adolescence. But I’m quite sneaky about taking personality traits or ticks from virtually anyone and filing them away for future use. For example, D.J. mentions in Dairy Queen how Curtis used to draw animals with the four legs sticking straight out – that’s based on a drawing Mimi did when she was three or four.

Do your children read what you write? Or do you ever ask them for tips or insight into how your characters interact?

Again, my kids are still a bit young for deep insights into high school life – although you’d be surprised. They did get naming rights to a couple of characters in The Off Season (Mimi nailed “Maryann”), and I always read the manuscript aloud to them. When they start bopping each other with pillows, I know it’s time to tweak or, better, delete a scene: pillows = boring. And they’re not above asking probing questions that get me thinking about improving a character or scene.

Do you have help in terms of a babysitter, nanny or relative when you're working?

Oh my goodness yes. When the kids were tots, I had sitters in the mornings just so I could get some thinking time to write, but I really didn’t start producing until they were in school full time – the stress of balancing was just too much prior to that. Anyone who can write at home with toddlers . . . wow! These days as I increasingly write in intense spurts, my husband couldn’t be more supportive – he’s the one who convinced me to check into that hotel for my last book. Besides, by that point it wasn’t like I was any good to anyone at home.

I read that your parents own a Christmas tree farm; do Nick and Mimi go and help out on the farm during the holiday season or in preparation for the holidays?

Yes, I try to get them up there every year. It’s hugely exciting for them to be part of my parents’ work, and vice versa, and also a critical experience to get a front-row seat in where things come from. Sort of like Dairy Queen – if one young reader, finishing the book, takes a close look at the carton of milk in their fridge, I’ll consider the story a success.

How important is it to you and your husband to have extended family (parents, siblings, cousins, etc.) around you and your kids?

You know that expression, “It takes a village to raise a child”? As far as I’m concerned, it requires a village to raise one. We’re actually in the process of moving my parents about a mile away from us, as they’re all so devoted to each other. My sister takes the kids as often as she can, my husband’s sister and mom do . . . I couldn’t imagine losing that, in terms of both time management and life experiences.

There will always be something that leaves you challenged as a parent, what is it for you (right now)?

Mothering these days is so built around guilt. I hate that, I just hate it. Today’s kids are healthier, more educated and better cared for than any generation in human existence, and all we can do is feel badly about it. How much does that suck? So on a macro level I try very hard to fight this tendency, to reassure myself that just because my kids don’t compete in sports (which I know makes us complete heretics), they won’t end up emotionally crippled or unable to get into college. And I try to be more patient. That’s the micro level issue – not snapping, at least without warning. I’m not saying I’m good about it, I’m saying I try.

Are there any traditions or rituals you and your husband have taken from your childhoods and are passing on to your children?

My husband and I both had moms who cooked dinner every night, and that means a lot to us. I hadn’t realized until recently just how unusual we are in 2007 to sit down regularly as a foursome – maybe it’s because the kids don’t do sports! I’m not saying I cook every night, but I can produce a dozen variations of pasta and sauce (think anchovies and/or garlic and/or clams and/or thawed spinach and/or white beans . . .) in roughly the amount of time it takes to browbeat one of the kids into emptying the dishwasher. I have an uncle who ate pizza for so many years when his boys were growing up that he still can’t touch the stuff. Doubtless that’s how Nick and Mimi will feel about fusilli.

Fill in the blank, the best thing about my family is __________.

Our sense of humor. Both kids have razor wits that will doubtless end up getting them in great trouble. But it’s delightful to make wry asides – or listen to the kids’ wry asides – and join in the appreciative reception. And they’ve already learned how effectively humor diffuses tension, a skill that I’m sure will boomerang back on me in the next few years.

Your Favourites:

Growing up what was your favourite book?

A short list: The Animal Family. The Black Stallion. The Chronicles of Narnia. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. Devil on the Road. Dragonsong. The Hobbit. Hold the Rein Free. The Little House books. Little Men. Mowgli of the Wolves. My Side of the Mountain. Nightbirds on Nantucket. Ozma of Oz (and the rest of the series). Pippi Longstocking. Watership Down. Etc. etc. etc.

. . . favourite toy?

A doll house that our grandfather bought, half-finished, at his local Agway one fall. We spent years decorating that thing, creating flower pots out of toothpaste caps and dinners out of cherry pits and acorn caps. We played with the girl doll so much that her feet fell off, so I had to devise little leg braces from paper clips and masking tape. Oh, it was wonderful.

. . . favourite cartoon?

Josie and the Pussycats. How many cartoons back then had girl protagonists?

. . . first pin-up or poster?

Some furry creature from National Geographic’s World magazine. Also my dad fell into my bedroom while insulating the attic floor, so for years and years I had an extra-large map of bird migrations taped to the ceiling. Terns migrate the farthest.

. . . what did you most want to be?

Honestly? A writer. In fifth grade I decided my pen name would be Gwen Tucker. I couldn’t think of anything in the world more romantic. Of course, I tossed that notion – writer and pen name – once I got to high school. And now look at me!

. . . who was your influential person in your life?

Probably my Grandma Nini. Grandmothers carry so much weight. She was classy and self-deprecating and witty as hell, so well-read, and always elegant, even in her husband’s stained khakis and hand-me-down shirts. I stayed with her every summer, and she introduced me to Tolkien and Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Animal Family. We adored each other.

With Amy Cox Williams of Ingram Books, 2006


D.J.’s voice rings very true. How did you channel this character, and were you like her as a teen?

I WISH I were D.J.– in high school I’d have killed to be D.J. So, no, whoever I was channeling, it wasn’t me. When I was a Y.A. reader, the classic narrator was a bookish introvert, and I know that voice so well – I am that voice – that I decided first thing to challenge it, and to develop a narrator who can’t write, who isn’t educated or intellectual, and who has no connection to or interest in that world. That was a lot of fun, actually, discovering this wonderful person, and I did channel some aspects of adolescence that I now know to be fairly universal: the belief that you have no abilities; disparagement of your appearance; the feeling that everyone else has an amazing social life from which you alone are excluded. I didn’t mean to make her funny, but there’s a dry Midwestern wit that you really can’t avoid – or I can’t avoid, I guess – and I tapped into that to make her narration a little more entertaining.

Communication—or lack of communication—between D.J., her family, and even her friend Amber is a theme in the book. What do you hope readers take away from this thread?

That you MUST learn to communicate your feelings, and to understand other people’s feelings, in order to survive. For the record, that sentiment is not how the story began – heaven help the novel that starts life as a moral – but it’s certainly its most important message. The most important message that I see, anyway. It was a great pleasure, actually, to play around with the gender roles in the story, so that the big tough quarterback guy teaches D.J. how to express herself. And even though Amber has a small role, it’s critical to the story. I hope she can help some folks.

The book has generated lots of early buzz, and many booksellers have commented on its refreshing qualities, even calling D.J. a “new teen role model.” Did you feel a certain sense of responsibility in writing for teenagers?

Wow. Um, first of all, let me clarify that I didn’t set out to write a book “for teenagers.” I set out to write a book that I would enjoy reading – which means, I suppose, that I have the mentality of a thirteen-year-old. Which is not terribly surprising given that I read every single YA novel I could at that age, and that I haven’t read much “adult” fiction since then. (Grad school is the best method I know for destroying any love of reading.) Also, through screenwriting I learned – or had beaten into my thick skull – that storytelling isn’t about audience age, or helicopters, or three-act structure. It’s about developing sympathetic characters who through adversity become better people. This rule applies to every story, from Goldilocks to Pride and Prejudice. When I wrote Dairy Queen, I was really striving, as much as I ever have in my life, to create believable characters with whom readers of all ages and backgrounds would empathize.

That said, I really do feel an obligation to teen readers. I don’t want to endorse behavior that I cannot support, be that materialism or arrogance or bigotry. People – teens included – have a tendency to say, “well, that person doesn’t suffer like I do because they are ____.” Which is very entitling and exclusionary, no matter what you fill that blank in with, and I hope that people reading my book recognize that suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. And that happiness does, too. 

im a 15 year old girl living in Bunbury, Australia. I love reading, and my favourite book is the Dairy Queen series. I loved the first and second books, and cant wait to read the third. I couldnt put down Dairy Queen, i read it in less than a day. DJ is so lovable and gutsy. The librarian at my school even read Dairy Queen when i recommended it to her. She loved DJs character and the way she talks . . . She's now ordering the series for the library at my school.

  1. -Paige