Dell Smith, over at the fabulous literary blog, Beyond the Margins, www.beyondthemargins.com
interviewed me recently about writing and publishing literature for young people.
Dell, a writer of short stories and novels, has published in J. Journal, Lynx Eye Quarterly, Grub Street’s 10th anniversary anthology Hacks, and will be featured in issue 56 of Fiction Magazine. He maintains a blog, Unreliable Narrator at dellsmith.com, featuring essays on writing, book reviews, and author interviews.
Thank you, Dell.
Kimberly Newton Fusco was an award-winning reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for 15 years before turning to writing for young adults. Her debut novel, Tending to Grace, is about a girl struggling with a stutter that leaves her reluctant to talk, especially after her mother leaves her with a great aunt she’s never met.
Her latest novel, The Wonder of Charlie Anne, was published August 2010 by Knopf Books for Young Readers. It’s about Charlie Anne, a young girl growing up during the Great Depression, without her mother (who died during child birth) and whose father and brother must head north to find work.
Kimberly Newton Fusco sits down with Beyond the Margins to discuss writing for young adults, why she set her latest novel during the Depression, and the importance of research.
Your first novel, Tending to Grace, is a beautiful, honest, and lyrical story about a girl who stutters and features two other characters who can’t read. Your latest book, The Wonder of Charlie Anne, is set during the American Depression of the 1930s. While Tending to Grace and Charlie Anne are set in different eras, you tackle universal themes such as surrogate parents, children with learning disabilities, and, in the case of Charlie Anne, racism. In other words, the stories you choose both entertain and inform. Were these the types of books you were drawn to when you were younger?
When I was young, I loved books about strong girls. I loved how Harriet the Spy made sense of people and their absurdities by writing about them, and how Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins learns to live alone – and survive! — on an island in the Pacific.
In my own writing, I am drawn to strong girls who face adversity and through their own determination, press on. In Tending to Grace, Cornelia must confront her stuttering and in The Wonder of Charlie Anne, Charlie Anne must confront her reading disability and the racism around her.
As far as entertaining and informing readers at the same time, I believe The Diary of Anne Frank is the best book ever written for young people. You read that book and you become a kinder and more compassionate person, even in small ways. A novel becomes bigger than itself and more universal when it takes on the larger world around it. I am very interested in writing about people who have been marginalized in some way, whether because of their religion, or by racism or because they talk differently, as Cornelia does in Tending to Grace.
Why did you set Charlie Anne during the Depression?
I was thinking about chores and what they would be like before electricity reached rural areas. Our road in Foster, RI, was without electricity until the 1950s. Imagine washing diapers without a washing machine, or sweeping and rug beating without vacuum cleaners, or cooking on a wood stove. The work seems endless.
I am very interested in what “women’s work” has been through the ages. When I heard Charlie Anne’s voice in my head for the first time, I was nearing the end of a first draft of another novel. I scrapped that book because Charlie Anne’s voice was so powerful and strong. She was a spirited, tough little nut. There was no looking back.
What was the publishing process like for Charlie Anne?
It took two and a half years from first sentence to finished novel on the bookstore shelf. I wrote the first draft pretty quickly once I got going because Charlie Anne’s voice was so strong and I wanted to capture it. I sent my editor the first three chapters in June 2008 and the whole novel five months later. Then my editor asked for two major rewrites and one smaller one. These were finished in July 2009. From there, the manuscript went through several rounds with copy editors and was printed into ARCs (advance reader copies), which were sent out for review. The first major review to come in was from Kirkus Reviews, and it was starred. That got everything off to a nice start.
How have young adult novels changed since you were younger? It seems like YA novels today tackle heavier themes than when I was a kid, with topics like addiction and teen violence. Have YA stories always reflected the times?
Some young adult novels do seem edgier. It’s wonderful that young people have so many choices today, from Harry Potter, to The Graveyard Book to this year’s Newbery Award winner, When You Reach Me. There are books out there for every sort of reader.
What draws you to writing for young adults?
I write for young people because books were such an important part of my life as a child. I would walk to my town library every few days and get a new stack of books and read them for hours in my tree house. To be able to give that gift to another child is what keeps me writing.
What is the difference between a story marketed as young adult and a story written from a young adult’s point of view that is considered an adult novel? For example, I just read David Benioff’s City of Thieves which takes place during World War II in Russia during the German invasion. The protagonist is seventeen, yet he is going through what can really only be described as intensely adult situations. So the book, from what I can tell, is not considered young adult.
I think lots of people are confused by this. I know I am. I tend to write for the younger end of the YA spectrum (Cornelia in Tending to Grace is 14, Charlie Anne in The Wonder of Charlie Anne is 11, which actually makes it a Middle Grade novel). Take Ellen Foster. Why wasn’t that marketed as a young adult novel, or The Secret Life of Bees?
Some people say the difference between YA and adult are the themes (adult themes = adult books) but that line is blurry. Some of the young adult books marketed to high school students take on very adult themes. A better answer I have heard recently is that a YA novel tends to have a quicker pace and the plot is more straightforward, while adult literature unfolds more slowly with more subtlety and ambiguity. Actually, I’d like to do away with some of the boxes we try and put writers into. I have many adults reading my books. It’s nice to have that cross-over.
You worked as a newspaper reporter in Worcester, Mass for years. How have your experiences working in a large, working-class city informed your fiction? Or have you incorporated more of your own life (including your early struggle with stuttering) into your books?
I was primarily an education writer in Worcester, and you will find evidence of that in my books. I would often spend one day a week for an entire school year with a class of students and then write a series of articles. For instance I wrote a series on ability grouping and what happens to the children on the bottom track, and I followed students in behavior disorder special education classrooms. I put Cornelia in remedial rooms and had her read a watered-down version of Tom Sawyer. When my former newspaper editor read the book, he said, “Hey, that sounds familiar!”
One thing I learned as a journalist is that the difference between a great story and a lousy one is research. I had the great fortune of meeting retired elementary teacher Beverly Pettine, who is volunteer schoolmistress at the Hornbine School, a one-room schoolhouse museum in Rehoboth, MA. She helped with a great deal of the research for The Wonder of Charlie Anne, including sharing primers used during the Depression. She also introduced me to two women who attended the school during the 1930s, and they shared their memories with me. Where else could I have found the “standing in the trash bucket” punishment?
What is your writing process like?
My writing routine is a lot different now that all my children are in school. When I was writing Tending to Grace, I wrote in half-hour blocks while one of my children was napping, but now I write after my children leave in the morning. I try and get in some exercise every day, either walking or running or riding my bike. This helps me work out plot problems. While I was writing Charlie Anne, I would hike each day out along the brook that runs in back of my house so I could listen to her voice.
You have a great website, incorporating your books and characters throughout the site. How important is it to have an author website in terms of publicity and staying available and current with readers? How about social media? Do you tweet or have a facebook page?
I do have a new website designed by an artist friend of mine and I keep a blog on that site, primarily to post events and news about Charlie Anne.
I have dabbled with social media, but mostly, I concentrate on my writing. It seems to me if the writing is good enough, everything else will take care of itself.