Friday, November 18, 2011

KidLit Quote of the Week #6

This quote, a lyric from the song "Your Life Is Now," has been running through my mind:

"This is your time here . . .
to do what you will do."

The former John Cougar Mellencamp makes a good point. It's that kind of so-obvious-we-often-miss-it fact we all "get" with a sharp gasp of deep understanding from time to time.

I'm in the midst of acting on my own most recent gasp, and because "what I will do" involves writing for children, it hit me that the very heart of any good story is characters doing what they will do, understanding (or coming to the understanding) that life is happening — and acting on the "Now what?"

Breaking news this is not.  But it's good to remember that life is art and art is life and now is IT.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Poetry Friday: Q&A with Author Carol Saller

--> My Q&A guest today is Chicago-based author Carol Saller, whose affecting middle-grade novel Eddie's War (namelos, August 2011) debuted last summer. The book's many impressive reviews praise not just the story, but also its unique and effective format: a collection of spare yet evocative vignettes that trace a young Midwestern boy's experiences before and during World War II.

Carol tells me she did not set out to write "poetry," but the novel's structure essentially established itself during the writing. (I don't know about you, but I am a sucker for writer-as-conduit experiences!) Having recently read this gem, I can tell you that — for me — describing the work as a historical novel feels equally as natural as characterizing it as poetry. Once you get caught up in the story, and that happens very quickly, the format disappears. You can call that good storytelling, precise technique, or the catch-all craft if you like — but I call it the very definition of poetry.

I am delighted to share this interview today as part of KidLitosphere Central's Poetry Friday roundup. (Thanks to Teaching Authors for hosting!) I hope you will enjoy peeking at Carol's writing process as much as I have — and that you'll be inspired to add Eddie's War to your reading list.

Welcome to my blog, Carol, and congratulations on the new book! How does it feel to have such esteemed sources as (not to name-drop or anything, but) Kirkus, The Horn Book, and Nikki Grimes praising this beautiful “baby”?

Thank you, Lisa — it’s wonderful to be here! And I’ll admit that it feels wonderful when people say good things about Eddie. This book in particular is very close to my heart.

That the book holds a special place for you really comes through in the writing. As a writer, I love hearing how individual story ideas take shape. How quickly after reading your father’s boyhood diaries did the inspiration to write something hit? And how did you decide to present the story as a collection of free-verse vignettes?

I was given the diary in 1994, and I didn’t start writing until 2003, but I suppose it was in the back of my mind all that time. The first vignette I wrote (“The Church Social”) wasn’t inspired by anything in the diary, in fact, but was based on something funny that happened to my grandmother and me when I was young. When I decided to expand that story into a novel, it occurred to me to use the diary for material.

The form was something I fought. I never thought of it as poetry; it just seemed that my paragraphs wanted to be chopped into lines. Most of it is very prose-like, except for the form. At least twice I rewrote it into paragraphs, but it just wasn’t the same, so I gave up trying.

Eddie’s War reads like a labor of love — the voice is so distinct and language so beautifully crafted. Did having that family connection to the work make your job easier? Do you think it changed your process at all?

Ha! I have to laugh, because my “process” was just a big mess. I wrote the scenes in random order as they came to mind. Sometimes I’d browse the diary for inspiration. I didn’t have a main character or a plot—when it was half written, I had a pile of unconnected vignettes. My editor Stephen Roxburgh encouraged me to stop worrying and keep “compiling,” and sure enough some threads eventually began to emerge and I was able to put things in order and develop some plot lines.

The family connection definitely made a difference, but I like to emphasize that the characters are all purely fictional. No one in my family makes an appearance.

You did a marvelous job of weaving very specific historical details into the story: Eddie’s realistic trip to the movies here, his telling observations of Army posters there. The reader can easily visualize the book’s world but doesn’t feel like “Oh, here’s another fact.” What were your most valuable resources for researching the rural setting and storyline-framing events? Did you do most of the research before writing . . . or as you wrote?

I love the Internet! I did huge amounts of research there. But I live just blocks from the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, so I also borrowed books there: timelines of World War II, books on Polish Roma culture. I bought an “audio history” of World War II that has some 35 hours of radio broadcasts: Edward R. Morrow reporting live from London in the middle of the Blitz; Churchill’s speeches; a fascinating treasure of information. And photos! Propaganda posters, aircraft, uniforms. That sleazy crime magazine Eddie sees in the store window, Official Detective? I found it at an antique shop; there’s a photo of it at my website. Now that I think of it, sometimes the huge amount of available material sometimes made it hard to sort and focus and select.

I researched in fits and starts. I’d stop writing because of something I needed to learn, and then my reading would inspire new scenes. I think the most valuable resource, however, was the family farm where the book is set. I’m not good at imagining places or picturing things in my mind. So using the farm as the setting — a place I’ve been visiting all my life — allowed me to create an authentic place that I couldn’t have otherwise. The diary, too: Being able to look up a Saturday in June 1944 and read “Today Gene and I dug dock and mullen,” I could slam that right into a scene and not even worry what the heck mullen is and why someone would cut it. (Don’t tell anyone!)

How long did the writing take — let’s say, from idea to first draft and then from draft to final manuscript? 

Well, you know by now there was never anything as organized as a draft. I wrote about the church social in April 2003 and namelos sent the book to a copyeditor at the end of 2010. I did take at least two years off to write The Subversive Copy Editor. But I’m really slow. It’s a short book. I once estimated that I averaged eleven and a half words a day.

Where can readers and reviewers find Eddie’s War — and you?

My website is At the bottom of every page are two links: Contact me and Buy Eddie’s War.

What’s next for you as a writer? Any new children’s books in the works?

I hope so! I envy writers who have stacks of ideas waiting. For me, it’s not that easy. My last two books were hugely meaningful to me: The Subversive Copy Editor contains everything I’ve learned from a whole adulthood spent editing, and Eddie has a million little hidden references to my family and my father’s past. It’s hard for me now to imagine writing a book just for the heck of it. I’m waiting for something to move me.

Carol, thank you so much for talking with me today. I certainly hope something moves you to write the Next Thing soon!