Monday, November 13, 2006

Author Interview: Shelley Pearsall on All of the Above

Shelley Pearsall on Shelley Pearsall: "I grew up in Ohio in a suburban Cleveland neighborhood called Parma. Imagine one of those neighborhoods where all of the houses are the same, all of the yards are the same, and each family has 1.5 maple trees on their tree lawn. The sameness of my neighborhood may explain why I craved different-ness as a child. I was the kind of kid who put on pioneer skits in the backyard, kept a menagerie of pets in the basement, and read a lot.

"I have to admit that not much changed once I grew up! In fact, my first real job after college was working for a local park system, creating and portraying park characters. They included an absent-minded recycling character named Tin Can Tilly and an early female botanist named Harriet Keeler. On the side, I earned extra money as a storyteller for various kids' events in Cleveland. After finishing a master's degree in education, I did a five year stint in the classroom, teaching grades four through eight. Most memorable school moment: the rocket launch that went awry in my 8th grade gifted class. But that's a story for another time...

"In hindsight, all of these experiences may seem like great preparation for writing books someday, but when you are in the middle of the path, sometimes it is difficult to see that the path is actually going somewhere. That it has a purpose. A direction. That you are not aimlessly wandering through the employment pages of life. Only recently have I been able to see the big picture."

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

As a first grader, I remember being allowed to write stories or draw pictures when my class work was done. Finishing those dull, old mimeographed pages (who remembers the smell of that purple ink?) became my goal. For years afterward, I think I saw writing stories as the escape, the reward that it had been back in first grade. Back then, my stories would also get passed around quite a bit, too. Sometimes, I'd receive comments from other teachers or administrators. Nothing really elaborate, just "great story" or "cool characters." But that was enough.

Math and spelling worksheets got smiley-face stickers, but stories got personal responses. That's what first called me to writing.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

Even though I wrote a lot of stories as a kid, the idea of writing for children never occurred to me as an adult. When I returned to college for my master's degree in 1993, a children's literature class brought me back to that world. The professor began each class by reading from the newly-published Night John by Gary Paulsen (Delacorte Press, 1993). I was spellbound by the story. Literally. It was like being given the key to a reading and writing world I hadn't visited since childhood. I had spent several years dabbling in various kinds of writing, trying to find my place, but this was the world where I belonged, and I realized it in that moment.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

My first novel, Trouble Don't Last (Knopf, 2002), follows the journey of two runaway slaves: a 70 year old man and an 11 year old boy, who escape from slavery in the year 1859. Written for grades four to eight, the novel was the recipient of the 2003 Scott O'Dell medal for Historical Fiction.

Crooked River (Knopf, 2005), my second novel, focuses on the murder trial of an Ojibwe on the Ohio frontier in the year 1812. Based on a true story, the novel weaves together two unique voices to tell the story of the trial and its aftermath, from the Native American and white perspectives. The novel was a Junior Library Guild selection and an NCSS-CBC choice.

Congratulations on the publication of All of the Above (Little Brown,2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The idea came on a day when I wasn't really expecting to stumble across a new book idea. (It often happens this way!) My first book, Trouble Don't Last, had just been published and I was making one of my first school visits as a new author. The Cleveland school I was visiting was called Alexander Hamilton Middle School. Picture a run-down urban school, a gloomy gray November morning, and a very nervous author who was just hoping she wouldn't screw up her first program.

During my visit, the school's principal kept talking about his school's record-breaking tetrahedron project. To be honest, I didn't have a clue what he meant--what in the world was a "tetrahedron?" But when I had a free moment, he took me to one of the math classrooms to show me. I can still remember the jaw-dropping sight when he opened the door: the entire room was filled with giant rainbow-colored pyramids. They were suspended from the lights and lined up along the windowsills and bookshelves. It was a magical, almost gravity-defying sight.

Later on, I learned that a group of kids at this inner-city school had attempted to set a record by building the world's largest tetrahedron--a giant paper pyramid made of 16,384 smaller ones. In fact, they had spent an entire year on the project, working after school, trying to reach their admittedly unusual goal. From that moment, I was hooked.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

My first visit to the school was in November 2002, and I returned a few months later to talk with some of the team members. Thinking that the tetrahedron would make a great visual element, I imagined the story as a picture book initially. In fact, remnants of that early picture book manuscript can be seen in the novel today--in the italicized text which opens and closes the story.

From 2003-2004, my picture book manuscript titled The Great Tetrahedron, made the rounds of publishers. Nobody was interested in the story as a picture book, although several publishing houses thought the characters and voice had potential. I was wrapped up in writing my second book, Crooked River, and couldn't devote any time to coming up with a new direction. The idea languished until Jennifer Hunt, a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company, called to say that she had read the picture book manuscript and was really drawn to the characters and their story. Over the next year, the manuscript evolved from a picture book into a multi-voiced novel with illustrations by artist Javaka Steptoe. The book was finished in late 2005 and published in September 2006.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Math does not lend itself easily to fiction! Just mention the word "math" and some math-phobic readers (myself included) go running in the opposite direction. Throw in the word "tetrahedron" and you really scare people away. Getting readers past the scary math term "tetrahedron"--which really means nothing more than a four-sided triangular pyramid--and into the stories of the characters and their lives, was a big challenge.

Telling the story through multiple voices also stretched me in some new directions a writer. Rather than having a seamless narrative told by a single person, each character's voice had to contribute to moving the story forward--much like each triangle contributes to holding up the tetrahedron. But each voice had to be distinctive and stand on its own, too. Often, I felt the characters themselves made this happen in the story, not me.

Other challenges: the recipes! Recipes appear throughout the story because one character works in a barbecue joint. My husband Mike and I had to concoct and test all of them. Believe me, we tried barbecue on everything--even cucumber slices and broccoli.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Read Anne Lamott's wonderful book, Bird by Bird (Pantheon Books, 1994). Set aside time in your life get started. If you don't give your dream the gift of your time and undivided attention--it won't happen. Revise, revise, revise. The best writing doesn't appear until later--maybe in the third or fourth drafts. Then revise again. And again.

How about those building a career?

Find a balance among family, writing, and work time. (I haven't succeeded in this area myself yet--but I'll let you know when I do...) Don't overlook the small moments that make this a wonderful career: the letters from readers, the e-mail from a parent who says your book was the first one his child finished independently, the second grader who wants to dress up as an author for Halloween after meeting you, and the school custodian who brings his poetry to share. These are the moments to savor! Stay open to ideas which might take you in unexpected and new directions as a writer --even into the world of math and barbecue!

What do you do when you're not writing?

From October to May, I'm often visiting schools, doing presentations and writing workshops. I spend about 25-30 days a year in schools and libraries. If I'm not writing or talking about writing, I'm probably playing kickball (badly) with my stepson Ethan, reading, gardening, or catching a play at one of our local theaters. Am I allowed to say that watching "American Idol" is my one guilty TV pleasure?

What can your fans look forward to next?

Clue number 1: I'm just a hunka hunka burnin' love...
Clue number 2: Thankyaverymuch
Clue number 3: It will be out in 2008.

3 comments:

susan said...

My fifth grade students in Birmingham, AL are LOVING this book! Thank you for expanding our views about math. The kids are beginning to think that they, too, might be able to accomplish something "big". PLEASE come to visit us if you are ever in this area. Thank you so much for such a great story. Can't wait to read your other books! Ms B

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Hooray for your fifth-grade students, and thanks for reading Cynsations! I'll be sure to give Shelley a heads-up on your comment. Cheers, Cynthia

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

From Shelley:

Thank you Birmingham readers! Glad to hear how much the story inspired and moved you. Best wishes for achieving your own "big" dreams -- the world is full of possibilities! Shelley Pearsall

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