Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blog Book Tour For "Jimmy's Stars" - Day Three

Welcome to Day Three of the Jimmy's Stars Blog Book Tour. Below you will find an interview that I had with the author of this wonderful book.

1. What prompted you to write this book?
I am lucky that there is a tradition of storytelling on both sides of my family. I don't remember being read to as a child, but I DO remember hearing bedtime stories such as "The Time Mom and her Seven Siblings Dug a Pool in Their Front Yard When Their Mother Went to Town" and "How Daddy Escaped from Kindergarten Three Times the First Day of School." I always appreciated these stories, and were some of the first ones I wrote down as a very young child.

At the same time, I am a great love of history. I have always seen history as a narrative involving people, and a story arc...and the best characters are the ones that never make it into the history books. It isn't all about the names and the dates and the battles and the treaties. While those things were happening, the people who MADE them happen...the everyday citizen was going about his regular business. Sure, maybe he stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day...but before he went he was a high school kid who lied about his age to join the service (as one of the my shirt-tail relatives did).

This was especially brought home to me about 25 years ago when I ran across a cache of letters written by my maternal grandmother, my mother and her siblings during WWII. My mother and her three brothers were all in the service (the WAVES, the Merchant Marines and the Marines) and each sibling, whether at home or in the service, wrote each other the other seven siblings, plus their mother, at least once a week, often more. That is a LOT of letters, and apparently my grandmother saved them all. Not only that, but one of the Merchant Marine uncles kept a ship's diary that was in the stash, for some reason. My not-very-sentimental relatives basically gave me the letters, and shook their heads over the niece who would want such "trash." To me it was a treasure. What struck me about the letters was the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary (what I tend to think of as History with a Capital H). For instance, one aunt wrote "Well, I guess the war is over. Lots of people whooping it up in Times Square. I went home and washed my hair." Or my diary keeping uncle commenting "German subs are following us. I am reading Steinbeck's THE MOON IS DOWN. I saw the movie before we left port, but I like the book better."

So, fired with enthusiasm for my new found information trove, I fashioned a family on the "homefront" based to some degree on some of my mother's family (not including my mom, although the WAVES do make a cameo appearance in the book) and the events of their letters. I spent an entire summer researching in the basement newspaper microfilm room in Carnegie Library in downtown Pittsburgh (I was spending the summer with these relatives). By the end of the summer, I could quote the Network Radio schedules for Pittsburgh from 1941 to 1945. I discovered that the way my relatives talk is actually a dialect known as "Pittsburgh-ese" and I made sure I was using the local slang and idioms correctly. I knew what movie theaters played what films. I knew which factories had been converted to war production. I knew everything except how to write a GOOD story. It was the first novel I ever completed, and when I did, I knew it was terrible. Mostly it was just a long narrative, including all my wonderful research...but no plot to speak of.

So I shoved it a drawer for twenty years. The only reason I didn't run it through a shredder was that I didn't want to lose all my precious research.

Twenty years later, I am suddenly struck with the notion to turn one of the book's episodes into a picture book called THE YEAR THE CHRISTMAS TREE STAYED UP. This was based on the true story that my Grandmother Smith put a Christmas tree Christmas 1942, and vowed not to take it down until all of her children returned home from war. It turned out that the tree was up for three years. (I have a picture...by Christmas 1945, it was nothing but a sickly-looking trunk, with a few scraggly branches remaining, dripping odd strands of tinsel.)

I showed this "masterpiece" picture book to an editor I had worked with, who gently pointed out that a story, where nothing happens except that a tree loses it's needles is not a terrific picture book. "But," she said. "I do like this family, and the rest of the characters. I like this girl Ellie and her brother Jimmy. Why don't you just expand this into a middle grade historical fiction?"

So I began to write. I did not back up or print off any of my work. I was humming along into the fifth chapter when...my computer was struck by lightening. I now had a very expensive and completely useless piece of gadgetry, which would only function as a doorstop or paperweight. Worst of all, my new project had disappeared in an instant.

I began again. But this time, the story began completely different. New characters appeared, old ones bit the dust. And when I got the point where I had lost the old version, I realized that this new one was much, much better.
(I am not going to say that it was Diving Intervention that kept me from continuing down another dead end path to another crummy novel...but that lightening hit just at the time when it was not too late or too discouraging to start from scratch.)

Once I got going on this new version, the whole writing process, first draft, second draft, revision, only took 18 months. Of course, that doesn't count the two and a half false starts over the years, or the months and months of research.
2. Did you get some of your ideas from real stories of the period?
Well, besides the family letters, every time I mentioned that I was writing about WWII to anyone of a "certain age", I suddenly had more details and stories from these folks than I could ever hope to use. (However, the ones I didn't use are squirreled away for future use!) They came from such diverse sources as my next door neighbor's father (who I learned grew up only ten miles or so from my mom, in the Pittsburgh area), my father-in-law, a career Navy man, and a woman I met in a nursing home in Mississippi, who turned out to have gone through basic training with my mom at the WAVES training camp at Hunter College in NYC!

One character who I did not disguise or change his name was Commando Kelly. Commando Kelly was a Medal of Honor winner from the Northside of Pittsburgh, which is roughly the same area where JIMMY'S STARS is set. He was recognized for his bravely during the Italian campaign was a big hero in Pittsburgh. There was a Commando Kelly Day when he was given the key to the city and a big ticker tape parade. The exploits for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor follow pretty closely the scene where Ellie, Stan and Victoria (and the rest of their friends) "play Commando Kelly." An interesting note, is that after one of my uncle's read JIMMY'S STARS, he told me that after the war, Kelly opened a gas station in Northside...across the street from my grandmother's house! Now he tells me!!

3. Did you do a lot of research about the period so that you could better create the right atmosphere for the story?
I am a former librarian, so research is something I really enjoy. I could research forever...without writing a word. Research has to end sometime, but I did keep two things with me throughout the writing process. One is that I have a big collection of WWII music (I am a big fan of all kinds of music...and of WWII as a historical era). I always write listening to the music of what ever era I am writing about (this doesn't work for picture books, BTW). I listened to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and early Sinatra. I asked my relatives what THEIR favorites were during that time and discovered early Doris Day and Artie Shaw and the Dorsey Brothers. One of the big discoveries was of a compilation of "propaganda songs" put together by the Smithsonian. Although there was some fun stuff on there like Spike Jones' "Der Fuehrer's Face" and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer." there was also a lot of seriously racist stuff like "You're a Sap Mr. Jap" and "Goodbye Mama, I'm Off to Yokahoma." Music is like my own personal soundtrack/time machine that can put my head in a time and place I'm to young to actually have lived. It works every time.

My other extremely useful item was a battered Fall 1941 Sears & Roebuck Catalog that I picked up at a flea market years before I ever thought of writing a book about that time. The old Sears catalogs were literally a catalog for life. If you want to know anything about how middle class people lived at that time, get a Sears catalog. It will tell you everything from the names of the cosmetics to wallpaper patters to girl's fashions to what kind of jacket would an eleven year old boy wear in winter to what the furniture looked like (I discovered that a good chunk of my own home's furnishings are on that catalogs pages!)

On top of that, I invested in an encyclopedia of old radio shows...who was on them, which network, what years they ran, the radio schedules from 1930 to the mid 50's for the entire country. I know from experience that should I say that a particular show was at 7 pm on the Mutual Network on Fridays in Pittsburgh in 1943, I would HEAR from someone who would tell me I had gotten it wrong. (For some reason, people LOVE to point out the details you get wrong, and I work very hard not to give them a reason to!)

Since I live in Atlanta, and most of my actual memories of Pittsburgh are decades old (and sometimes incomplete) I could email or call up any one of my endless cousins, aunts and my mom to ask questions such as "Did Kaufmann's Department Store have elevators or escalators or both?" or "How long did it take to get from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh by train?" or "How much did it cost to ride the Pittsburgh streetcars during the war?" I have thanked all of my "sources" in the acknowledgments at the end of the book.

One of my best sources of information about the Pacific war, came from an older cousin who I have never met. Not only did she send me her own memories of that time (she was a very small child at the time) and what her father (the Marine uncle) had told her about the war, but she sent me copies of the family pictures my uncle carried with him through the whole Pacific campaign (this uncle was a little like Forrest Gump...he managed to be at every important battle in the Pacific). These family pictures were ones I had never seen. I framed them, and kept these on my desk to remind me that I was not writing about the aunts and uncles I love...but about the children they were and that I imagined they might have been.

4. Do you find that you put some of yourself into your characters?
Not so much as I did in YANKEE GIRL. The personality of Ellie is a combination of my own mother, who was a take-no-prisoners kind of girl (and who frequently got into fistfights on behalf of her siblings) and my Aunt Agnes, to whom the book is dedicated. The only parts that are "me" would be the parts that deal with Ellie's emotions over seeing the Western Union telegram delivery boy/man at various times during the book. (That's about all I can say without going into spoilers.) Oh, and her friction with Aunt Toots. Toots was based on a relative from my dad's side of the family who always rubbed me the wrong way. She meant well, but she had absolutely no tact whatsoever. Ellie's relationship with Toots was 100% me at 12!

5. Did you have a goal in mind when you wrote this book?
I never start writing a book with a "goal" in mind, other than to finish it, and tell a good story. If I write with "an agenda" in mind, then I wind up with a not-very-good story. I think I managed to keep my own opinions or agenda out of the story, since I have had people both "assume" from reading the book that I both a pacifist and a militarist! My philosophy on foreign policy did not enter into the writing of this story at all! It's about the relationship between a
girl and her brother, and that people sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reasons. (Again...any more and I'll be blowing the last third of the book if you haven't read it.)

6. Do you think young readers should know about times in the past, and if so why?
OK...if I have ANY agenda, is that I am a big believer in the power of studying history. My personal motto is the one about those who forget history or doomed to relive it.

7. Your other work of historical fiction is about living in the south during the 1960’s. What other period(s) in history interests you?
I am pretty much a product of my family history. My family's known history only goes back as far as the 1880's, so that's about as far as my writing interest extends. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I could write a convincing book about something that I can't find primary sources readily available. I envy people who can write about the Middle Ages or Biblical times. How do they do that?

Right now I am working on a novel that takes place in 1925 Southern Illinois.
(My dad's family), and a companion piece that MIGHT take some of the same characters back to 1908. I also have a school story percolating about the Depression that combines to of my favorite things...the underdog and music. I will let you muse about that one!

8. What kinds of books did you like to read when you were young?
I pretty well read everything, although there were a few kinds of books I wasn't so crazy about. As much as I love animals, I couldn't read stuff like BLACK BEAUTY or THE YEARLING...invariably the animals dies. I also didn't much like fantasy. I never have managed to get through THE HOBBIT, let alone the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. My favorite books were...surprise, surprise...historical fiction! However, to show you there are no absolutes, my all time favorite book is CHARLOTTE'S WEB. It's funny, sad and PROFOUND!

9. You obviously love to write or you wouldn’t be doing this. What do you find hard or not enjoy about the writing process?
The one thing I don't like is writing a first draft when I don't know what's going to happen next. I have learned to write out of sequence, and to make a row of X's any place where I don't know something...a character's name, or a scene, or sometimes, even whole chapter sequences. I used to start with chapter one, and try to plough through one chapter after the other. If I got stuck, I would stay stuck. This usually resulted in a one chapter book, never to be finished. As much as I hate to leave a first draft with "holes" in it, I know that when I come back to it in the second draft, the puzzle pieces that I am missing will be there.

10. Do you share your thoughts and ideas with family members or friends while you are writing or do you like to surprise them with the finished book?
Not very often. While I don't hesitate to pump my family or friends for information I need, I usually don't tell them what I am writing unless they ask. If find that "talking about the story" takes the edge off my need to write.

The other blogs participating in this event are:

Please visit these blogs to read their reviews and to see what activities they have planned for the next two book blog days.

Thank for joining me on this blog book tour.


maggie moran said...

Nicely Done! :)

Nicole said...

I really enjoy reading interviews, you get to learn so much about the 'interviewee'. Good job!