On Creativity: Avi

A few weeks ago, I sent this question to several writers I admire. “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

First, from Avi:

AviKaren, I have nothing but sympathy and shared feelings with you. That said, I am writing, not just because the domestic budget requires it, but I like to think I can take the world as it is today and make it part of what I write. Perhaps it is the historical fiction I write (and you write) that helps. There are, alas, many moments in history which echo today’s world. If you can write about such, and as does happen in history (not always) the highest qualities of human culture triumph, you can imbue your young readers with a sense of their potential triumphs that might be, could be, and should be. In other words, let your struggle be your story.

Avi is the author of many books for children and teens, including the popular True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin: Cross of Lead, and Nothing But the Truth, each of which were honored by Newbery committees. Nothing But the Truth is being read in classrooms because of its connection with current events, much like The Loud Silence of Francine Green. Visit Avi’s website.


Glad You Asked, Q5


I Love to ReadWhat did you study in college?

I entered college as an English major but quickly became enamored of the Classics department because it was much smaller and more interesting and they had sherry parties every Friday afternoon. My final major was double—Greek and English.

Glad You Asked, Q4

Are there particular memories of growing up that, looking back, you see as leading you toward a writing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be leading me to a writing career.

I wrote all the time—poems, short stories, a 7-page novel, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis.

A lot of what I wrote was involved with creating a world I’d like to live in starring a person I’d like to be.

Glad You Asked, Q1

Are you working on a new manuscript?

I’m struggling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Here’s the beginning, or the beginning at the moment:

Jorge lifted the slimy creature to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shuddered as I watched.  “Doesn’t that taste muddy and disgusting?”

 “Nah,” he said, wiping mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octopus into a bucket and slipped through the mud flats to another hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spattered Clorox bottle and squirted the bleach into a hole. When the occupant slithered to the surface, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want?  Make good stew.”

I shook my head.  I preferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped celery.

San Diego's Santa Fe train station
San Diego’s Santa Fe train station 1940s

Congratulations, Late Bloomer!

JC KatoJC Kato has won the 2015 Cushman Late Bloomer Award with her manuscript for Finding Moon Rabbit,  the incredible story of Koko Hayashi, a ten-year-old girl who doesn’t follow rules, but must survive with her mother and sister in a Wyoming internment camp. JC said she’s been wanting to write this story ever since she married into the Kato family, and now she has. I chose Finding Moon Rabbit because the writing is strong and authentic, Koko is an intriguing and original character, and the subject matter is compelling and important. Well done, JC. I look forward to reading the finished book.

So all you over-fifties, think about applying. Next year I could be congratulating you.

The Polish word for family

RodzinaQ: Choosing names. Is there a story behind the names you’ve chosen for your characters? (e.g., Brat becomes Beetle becomes Alyce)

A: There is no good answer to this question. Names just pop into my head, often before the story does. But there is a story behind Rodzina: When I was ten, my Grandma Lipski took me to the Polish cemetery in Chicago to show me her mother’s grave. In front of a gravestone marked Rodzina Czerwinski, she sat and cried. Many years later when I was writing a book about a Polish girl from Chicago, I decided to call her Rodzina after my great-grandmother. I checked with my father to make sure I had the spelling correct, and he told me that rodzina was not her first name but was the Polish word for family. The gravestone marked the resting place of the rodzins Czerwinski, or Czerwinski family. The book Rodzina is all about the search for family, so I decided that while Rodzina was not my great- grandmother’s name, it was the perfect name for the girl in my story. And so she is Rodzina.

My writing future

Copyright-free image of Elvis Presley from the Library of Congress collectionI was asked not long ago if I plan to write in other formats—plays, poetry, screenplays, or picture books. My short answer was good grief, no! but here’s more. I think I wrote all the plays, poetry, and screen plays that I had inside me before I was fifteen. I still have boxes of them: plays like “Jingle Bagels,” the story of Santa Claus going down the wrong chimney on Christmas Eve and finding himself in a Jewish home; a notebook called Plots for Elvis Movies; and of course poetry, poetry I wrote when I was happy, angry, frightened, in love, broken hearted—even a series of poems based on the life of Elvis (do you see a theme here?). No, I believe I’ll stick to middle-grade novels. They have gotten me this far.

About a Boy

Will Sparrow's RoadWhy did I write a book about a boy? I had in mind a story about a child alone and on the road in Elizabethan England. I knew a girl likely would not survive there in those somewhat brutal times. And I don’t believe that in a world with so little privacy, she could successfully disguise herself as a boy for long. She wouldn’t have access to a private bedroom or dressing rooms or bathrooms. London did have one public restroom—a plank with 18-holes, emptying directly into the Thames River. In fact using the whole world as a toilet—streets, fields, the halls of great houses—was so common that a book of manners from 1731 stated that it was impolite to stop and greet someone who is urinating. So it had to be a boy, and Will Sparrow was born.

It was important to me to build a Will who was believable, true to his character, his gender, and his times. My first attempts made Will more like a girl in britches so I had to do a lot more research. I read books on psychology and child development. I spoke to boys and mothers of boys. I watched boys at the bus stop and my husband and his friends at play. The resulting Will has boundless energy, his voice is changing, he distrusts displays of emotion, and he longs to grow facial hair. But he lives in a time that was more chaotic and dangerous so he is extremely vulnerable. There was no concept of adolescence so a boy of thirteen, no longer a child, was considered a man, with the responsibilities of a man.  

I hope I have managed to construct a Will who is believable, not a stereotype, and wholly entertaining.  Let me know what you think.

This article originally appeared on the Green Bean Teen Queen blog.

The Story Sleuths

Alchemy and Meggy SwannAllyson Valentine Schrier, Meg Lippert, and Heather Hedin Singh, the women behind The Story Sleuths, did a seven-part series on Alchemy and Meggy Swann, culminating in an interview with me. They look at things such as character transformation, inner dialogue, and details. It’s a good thing an author doesn’t have to plan all of this while writing a story. Much better to have the readers mull it all over and find meaning.

On the edge

On the edgeFor a week or so now, I have been stuck on my new book. My main character needed to be in danger, but from what? This didn’t work, that was unbelievable. What to do? Finally, in frustration, I went back and read from the beginning of the story, and there they were—the vicious “edge dwellers” who had appeared and disappeared in an early chapter. Perfect villains, frightening and dangerous, and they were there all along.

I think we writers write more into our stories than we even know, not because our characters take over or we are channeling someone or because there is a muse at work. I think we do it ourselves, unwittingly, because we are preparing ourselves for surprise. We merely find what we planted there, the unconscious gifts we give ourselves. So I am for the moment unstuck and ready to deal with those vile edge dwellers.