Saturday, January 21, 2006

Author Interview: Cecil Castellucci on The Queen of Cool

The Queen of Cool by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2006). From the promotional copy: "a funny, incisive look at a teenage girl who becomes bored with her popularity and dares to take off her tiara and do something really cool with her life." Ages 12-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I had just handed in Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview)(a Cynsational Book of 2005), and I was just kind of obsessed with the L.A. Zoo. I had gone to visit one day when I was having an emotional freak out. I was wandering around and I noticed there was a big picture of the Condor near the aviary only there were no condors to be seen. They keep them hidden away. That made me really sad. I got the idea for a scene, in a flash, about this girl who was totally cool who goes on a field trip to the zoo and sees a baby condor die while it's hatching and her life is changed. For some reason, she was sitting next to a girl who was a dwarf. I went home and wrote the scene. I called the girl "Libby," and she was so bored with her routine. And she was trembling because she (and I) knew that she was as rare a bird as that condor, and as rare a bird as Tina (aka Tiny) who was sitting next to her.

I started seeing everyone around me as these kind of endangered species. Then one day I was at this function (Forest Ackerman's 88th birthday party, if the truth be told) and before I'd gotten there, I was totally worried that I wasn't going to be cool enough to be there but then when I got there, I kind of felt like I was actually one of the coolest people in the room. That got me thinking about how it's pretty amazing that you can feel both totally cool in one situation and like the biggest loser who can't fit in no matter how hard you try in another social situation.

By the way, the Field Trip is not in the book. At all. Neither is the Condor. Just FYI. It turned out to be just a jumping off point. It was the core of the whole story, but not what made the book.

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

So this was like January 2004. I had met Aimee Bender, who is a fabulous L.A. author, at a literary speakeasy. When I told her that I had sold my first novel, she said "Write your second one before your first one comes out." I was like, "Why?" and she was like, "Because that way you won't freak out." She's kind of an L.A. literary Goddess, so naturally, I trusted her, and I just got to work. I kept scratching away at it but honestly, I was really busy working on my first indie feature film "Happy Is Not Hard To Be," because that's what a girl does sometimes, she makes a feature film. Meanwhile, Kara LaReau, my editor, kept asking me if I had anything else kicking around in my head. I wasn't finished with this cool zoo Libby/Tina thing. I only had like a skeleton of a story but I asked Barry if he thought it was worth sending. He thought it was pretty OK TOMATO. Kara bought it that Summer 2004. Only she changed the title, I had called Rare Birds and Animal Magnetism.

I was just finishing it up when I went to ALA in January '05 when Boy Proof came out and I was like WHOA! Good thing I listened to that smart Aimee!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I'm especially interested in how you found out about working behind the scenes at a zoo!

Literary challenges, as always for me is - plot, plot, plot! I had all of these characters! But what was going on? How do they get from here to there? Intertwining all the characters was challenging. I had one of my screenwriter friends read it and he was like YOU HAVE NO PLOT!!!!! I actually called Kara's office voice mail at like 2 in the morning in a panic about it. She called me the next day and laughed at me…with love and comfort.

Research wise I joined the L.A. Zoo. I went there a lot. I walked around. I talked to the docents. I talked to the animal services people if they were hanging around the cages. I talked to the student volunteers. I observed. I read the information signs in front of the cages! I called the head of animal services. He let me ask him questions. I also talked to the Zoo Librarian. They have a library there! Anyone can go and look stuff up! She really helped me with the nitty gritty of the animal stuff.

For the dwarfism stuff, which was mostly background-y kind of stuff so I really knew Tina, I did things like I went to the LPA (Little People of America) site and to a couple of LPA meetings. I also watched a great documentary called "Big Enough" (2004), which was on PBS. Also I watched the film "Tip Toes," which is a fiction film.

Queen of Cool follows your smash debut novel Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005). It doesn't seem you suffered at all from The Dreaded Sophomore Novel Block that plagues so many authors. Tell us about your momentum! What gets you up and writing and feeling the story each day?

Ha! Ha! Ha! Does it really look like I didn't suffer the dreaded sophomore novel block! It must be my regiment of salt scrubs, sleight of hand, balloon twisting and the art of mesmer! Honestly, I think it helped that I sold it before my first novel hadn't come out yet because I didn't know enough to be terrified. I told my agent Barry Goldblatt that what I was working on might just be a palette cleanser.

I don't feel it everyday. Sometimes I lay around staring at the ceiling thinking, "OK that's it. I've had my last idea. I'm done. It's over. I'm a big fat fraud. And I might be ugly, too." But Jennifer Richard Jacobson, who wrote the terrific book Stained (Atheneum, 2005)(author interview), once said that she tries to just write 9 lines a day. So I would have to say that it's not momentum that gets me writing, it's puttering. I leave the page open and I try to show up to it all the time. Sometimes that means taking a bath, or a walk, or slacking off. It’s all a part of the process.

Romantic that I am, I just adored two of your supporting chracters, Tina and Sheldon. Though marked as nerds by the popular kids at their high school, it's clear to me that they've got cool to spare. How did these characters evolve?

Sheldon comes of my love for boys with gorgeous brains. I've liked some boys that are eccentric huge brained geniuses like Sheldon, and I know they certainly didn't make it through high school being thought of as cool. But now, they are so friggin' cool I can't believe it! I want to kiss them all!

Tina came about because I think a lot about being small. I am quite small, though not as small as Tina and I wondered about how that would be, to be smaller than I am and yet be so big. Tina, is a pretty big girl on the inside. When I look back now, I think in part two things made Tina be in that field trip scene I wrote. At that time I was doing this writing assistantship at the New Works Festival at the Taper and I was working on this one woman show written by this differently-abled actress named Anne Stocking. She's like this powerhouse, sexy, amazing, talented writer performer. She's smaller than I am, but ballsier. I had also just gone to a wedding and my friends Uncle has achrondoplasia. He was trying to encourage me to join the LPA so I could get blocks for my car since I have trouble reaching my pedals. At 4' 10", I actually make the cut. So I did. It's been so interesting!

As I was finishing the novel, it struck me that I couldn't think of another YA title that included a character who, like Tina, is a little person. Are there some I'm forgetting or missed along the way? I wish they weren't so rare.

I can only think of Funny Little Monkey [by Andrew Auseon (Harcourt, 2005)] and Freak the Mighty [by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic, 1993)]. Or A Prayer for Owen Meany [by John Irving (Ballantine)], which I guess isn't YA. I wish they weren't so rare either. In those two books, the little characters go to hospitals a lot, which of course, does happen in life. I wanted Tina to just be a normal teen, who happens to be a dwarf. This story doesn't take place during any hospital stay that Tina might have had to / or would do later. In this story, Tina's dwarfism was a way to sort of have Libby be confronted physically with a difference. A way for Libby to have to see past that and into the true meaning of cool. 'Cause Tina's pretty friggin' cool.

Of the young adult novels you've read of late, which are your favorites and why?

Well, I just read Nick and Norah's Ultimate Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan [(Knopf, 2006)]. E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List [(Delacorte, 2005)(author interview)](really moved me with that whole carnation scene. It was like I had an Aha moment! I've read a draft of Holly Black's Ironside and WHOA! It's amazing! Honestly, I am ashamed I haven't read more. I am a really slow reader so I'm terribly behind on my reading.

What strikes you as "cool"? How would you define it in your own life--past, present, and future?

People who are their genuine authentic self are cool. That's always the case. Past, present and future. If you are yourself, true to yourself, 100% then that is cool. Always.

Were you the Queen of Cool as a teenager? You certainly are now!

I don't know if I was! I think I was in the middle. I wasn't the coolest person I knew but I wasn't the dorkiest. For me, I had this big personality, and I was sensitive and emotional and raw. (Uh, I might still be those things) (Don't tell)

I think now, the advantage of being an adult is that I can manage myself a little better, and I also can see the cool thing inside of pretty much everyone. In my opinion, everyone has something deliciously, exquisitely, divinely cool in them.

But I still have those social situations where nothing I do is cool enough and I guarantee you, I'm the biggest loser in the room. Then I remember that really, truly, I am a Queen. (And so are you!)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Author Interview: Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts on M or F?

M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts (Razorbill, 2005). From the promotional copy: "Frannie and Marcus are best friends-brain twins, in fact. They share a love of Bollywood movies, an unbridled passion for pizza, and the fact that neither of them has ever had a boyfriend. At least Marcus has an excuse-eligible gay boys are hard to come by in their small Illinois town. Frannie is desperate to get the attention of her crush, Jeffrey, but she's way too shy to make a move. Marcus insists that Frannie chat with Jeffrey online, but Frannie won't type a word without Marcus's help. In the chat room, Marcus and Jeffrey hit it off. The whole plan seems to be working! But the more Marcus writes, the more he's convinced that Jeffrey is falling for him, not Frannie. But if that's true, what does it mean for their friendship?

"Co-authors Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts tell the story from two different points of view-giving the reader he-said/she-said insight into troublesome issues like lying by exclusion, coming out to your family, the humiliation of minimum-wage jobs, assumptions about sexuality, living with an embarrassing grandmother, what it means to be a "perfect date," and the ever-pressing questions: Does this guy like boys or girls? M or F? Gay or straight? What's the deal???"

Lisa Papademetriou is the author of Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me (Hyperion, 2005)(named one of the Best Books of 2005 by FamilyFun.com)(read excerpt) and co-author (with Chris Tebbetts) of M or F? (Razorbill, 2005). She has written and/or adapted over thirty books for children and young adults, including titles in the Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven, Kim Possible, and Sweet Valley High Senior Year book series. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with her husband, where she enjoys quilting, dancing around the house to eighties music, playing the guitar (badly), and drinking large amounts of coffee. Her next book, The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey will be published in May 2006.

Chris Tebbetts is a writer of middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as creative nonfiction. His books include The Viking (Puffin, ongoing), a middle grade fantasy adventure series, and M or F? (Razorbill, 2005), a young adult romantic comedy co-written with Lisa Papademetriou. He lives with his husband in Hinesburg, Vermont.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Lisa's answer

LP: Actually, the publisher came up with the idea. They wanted a "Will and Grace" for high school. Then they hired Chris and me to write it. It was an arranged marriage--Chris and I had never met (or even heard of each other) before we started working together.

Chris's answer

CT: The idea behind the story is Cyrano-inspired. We knew we wanted one character helping another to spark a romance, only to get sucked further into it than he originally intended. Then there was the gay-straight twist layered onto that. Then there was the idea that two characters (and two authors) should tell the story. All of it was a natural launching pad for Lisa and me to create a plot that was intentionally as complicated as possible, with unanswered questions and loaded situations thrown in at every turn. In a way, I was inspired by those old weekend-in-the-country farces, where someone's always coming into a room just as the person they're looking for is exiting through another door.

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

Lisa's answer

LP: I guess the book took about a year to write and another to publish. Because we were essentially writing two stories that had to intertwine and eventually dovetail, Chris and I were very careful about plotting and outlining together. We each started with a character sketch of our main protagonist, worked on a skeleton plot, then hammered out an outline. At that point, I came up to Vermont and met Chris in person for the first time! We spent several days going over that outline, page by page and line by line until we felt it was right. Then we started the long haul of actually writing the manuscript. Three revisions and many months later, we finally
had it.

Chris's answer

CT: We started the project by exchanging a long string of emails and phone calls, getting to know each other while we were also getting to know our characters. It was time well spent. After that, we created our plot together, over a weekend, and then spent about eight months playing writer tennis: I wrote Chapter One, sent it off to Lisa, who then wrote Chapter Two and sent the whole thing back to me. Once we had a first draft, we spent another weekend together identifying issues for the rewrite, and then another month in a less structured back and forth, getting the whole thing done.

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

Lisa's answer

LP: The greatest challenge, for me, was to make sure the book had flow. We wanted it to sound like it was told by two different characters...not two different authors.

Chris's answer

CT: Besides the logistics of collaboration, we also wanted to create a gay character whose "problem" wasn't his own sexuality. This book was always meant to be a light comedy, so it was a balancing act to set aside some of the heavier aspects of being a young, out, gay man in a homophobic world, without completely ignoring that reality. In the end, it was much harder to combine comedy and substance than I thought it was going to be.

What were the special challenges, if any, of collaboration? Are you two "brain twins" like your alternating protagonists?

Lisa's answer

LP: That term "brain twins" actually came from our experience working together--we referred to each other as brain twins before we referred to Marcus and Frannie that way. Chris and I are on the same wavelength to a degree that is borderline freaky. There were surprisingly few challenges in working together--whenever we didn't agree on something, we just talked it
through. I think we both accepted the fact that sometimes you have to sacrifice your beloved idea in the interest of creating a story that works.

Chris's answer

CT: I think the major challenge was logistical-keeping track of plot details and two different, but dovetailing, arcs for two different protagonists. Any changes to one character's story affected the other character's story, and of course, the other writer, so the process was more cumbersome than usual. It was like going from juggling three balls on your own, to juggling six balls with a partner. Having said that, I feel the same way Lisa does: our chemistry, as friends, made all the difference. This project was a pleasure, beginning to end.

What can your fans expect from you next?

Lisa's answer

LP: I've got a novel called The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey due out in May with Razorbill/Penguin. And, of course, I'd love to work with Chris again. We're talking about what that will look like... We'll keep you posted!

Chris's answer

CT: I'm working on a middle grade novel that doesn't have a home yet, and I'm too superstitious to say more than that. Meanwhile, I'd love to work with Lisa again, so our fingers are crossed for a sequel, or who knows, maybe something totally new.
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