Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Author Interview: Brenda A. Ferber on Julia's Kitchen

Brenda A. Ferber on Brenda A. Ferber: "I grew up in a happy home in Highland Park, Illinois, the third of four children. I attended the University of Michigan and created my own honors major called, 'Creative Writing for Mass Media.' It was basically a combination of creative writing, film/video, and communications classes. Lots of fun! For my honors thesis, I wrote a screenplay, which is currently sitting in the back of my file cabinet, exactly where it belongs.

"After graduation, I moved to Chicago with Alan, my college sweetheart. I worked for Leo Burnett advertising agency, got married, and had three kids in 19 months. (Yes, we have twins.) Suddenly I was a stay-at-home mom, living in the suburbs, and driving a mini-van. It was time to reassess life.

"I had always dreamed of becoming an author but never saw it as a practical career. Now I figured I had to give it a shot. I wasn't making any money anyway, so what did it hurt? I took a class through the Institute of Children's Literature, devoured everything in the children's department of our library, and started to write. A few years later I sold two stories to Ladybug. Then, amazingly, I sold my first novel to FSG!"

What about the writing life first called to you?

When I was ten years old, my aunt gave me a diary for Hannukah, and I've been journaling ever since. For me, writing equals thinking. I don't really understand something until I've written about it. Not only did writing in a diary help me tackle the ups and downs of life, but it also helped me discover my writing voice. Journaling and reading as much as possible (Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Constance Greene were childhood favorites) added up to a natural desire to become an author.

I wasn't one of those kids who wrote stories all the time, but I thought in story-mode, and I still do.

You know that inner voice you have? Well, mine is a story-telling voice. For example, right now I'm thinking, She tried to answer the interview questions while her ten-year-old son buzzed about the room and asked, "What's for dinner, Mom?" I thought everyone's inner voice worked like this until one day when I mentioned it to my husband, and he informed me otherwise. Who would have guessed?

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I'm much too hopeful and optimistic to write for adults. And I love examining the growing-up years. I find it fascinating.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

In 2003, I attended the SCBWI Mid-Year Conference in NY. One of the editors I heard speak there was Beverly Reingold, from Farrar Straus & Giroux. At that time, I was in the middle of my first draft of Julia's Kitchen, and Beverly struck me as the right editor for that manuscript. I can't explain exactly why. It was just a gut feeling.

I went home and read several books Beverly had edited, and I became even more convinced that she should be my editor. Of course, I couldn't send her a half-finished first draft, so I sent her a picture book manuscript instead. Soon after, I received a lovely rejection letter from her. I sent her another picture book manuscript, and another, and another. Each time, she sent a rejection requesting to see more of my work.

Finally, she asked me if I could possibly write something longer than a picture book, and I told her about Julia's Kitchen. She sent me a handwritten note saying to send it as soon as possible! I taped that note up to my computer and worked as fast as I could to finish the fourth draft.

Meanwhile, I had entered the third draft of Julia's Kitchen in the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition and was waiting to hear the results. Right around the time I heard I won, I finished the fourth draft and submitted it to Beverly. She loved it, and offered me a contract! I did one revision for her, and then we went straight to line editing. Working with Beverly was an amazing learning experience. She was every bit the editor I thought she would be... and more!

Congratulations on the publication of Julia's Kitchen (FSG, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

In 2001, we were living in Austin, Texas, and there was a house fire in our neighborhood. A father and son died in the fire, and to make matters worse, the mother had died two years earlier in a car accident. There were two brothers who survived, and they went to live with relatives. I didn't know the family, only their house and their story. But every day as I would drive by the burned out house, I wondered about the two boys. I wondered how they were dealing with all this tragedy. I also wondered how I would have coped in their place.

Then 9/11 happened, and it seemed everyone was walking around with a new level of fear.

I asked the age-old question: Why does God let bad things happen? I figured I could try to answer that question in a book. I always loved novels about grief and loss (I just love a good cry!), and I noticed all the mainstream books about death had Christian characters. Where were the Jews? I wanted to write a universal story about a Jewish girl dealing with loss and trying to figure out why God lets bad things happen.

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

I let the initial spark simmer in my head for about a year before I tried to write anything. During that time, we moved back to the Chicago area. I enrolled in ICL's novel writing class and formed a critique group. I spent about a year writing the first draft, and six months writing the next three. I worked with Beverly for about a year, and then a year later, the book was released. So it was a total of four and a half years from spark to publication.

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

I am a naturally happy and optimistic person, so it was very hard for me to go as deep as I had to into Cara's grief. I wanted her to get over it! I wanted her to be happy!

Thankfully, a member of my critique group is a social worker, and she kept pushing me to delve deeper inside Cara's feelings. Also, one of my dearest friends unfortunately lost her mother to cancer while I was writing the book, and we had many talks about the grieving process. Through my friend, I learned that grief isn't only painful, it's also beautiful, and absolutely necessary to heal.

At one point while working with Beverly, it dawned on me that this was a terribly sad book. I wondered who would ever want to read such a heartbreaking tale, and I felt a bit panicked about that! But Beverly told me it has to be sad because it's a sad situation. I had to be true to my character and her story. And of course, there is a hopeful and uplifting ending. Even in the depths of grief, there are happy moments, if you look for them.

Congratulations, too, on your Sydney Taylor Awards for Julia's Kitchen--best manuscript (2004) and best book for older readers (2007)! What did this recognition mean to you?

Thank you! Winning the manuscript award in 2004 was amazing because it validated me as an author. It made me think I might actually get published. And it did help me find a publisher right away! But winning the gold medal in 2007 was even more exciting because there were so many outstanding Jewish books written this year. I was shocked and thrilled and flabbergasted and grateful that they picked mine as the very best. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around it!)

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Read, read, read. And don't stop revising until your manuscript is as good as the best stuff out there today. Only then should you try to find a publisher.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I love to spend time with my family and friends. We go to White Sox games, play Monopoly or Scrabble, see movies, go out to eat. I also love to read, scrapbook, bake, and (when nobody's watching) sing and dance to my iPod. My non-writing time also includes running errands, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, driving carpools, settling fights, and figuring out what's for dinner. If I ever win the Newbery or write a best-seller, I'm getting a personal chef!

As a reader, what middle grade novels have you enjoyed lately and why?

I loved Sold by Patricia McCormick (Hyperion, 2006). It was hauntingly powerful, deeply sad, yet filled with hope. Right now I'm in the middle of Alabama Moon by Watt Key (FSG, 2006), and I'm loving it! The main character, Moon, is one in a million. I find myself thinking about him when I'm not reading and itching to get back to his story.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire, will be published by FSG in spring 2009. It's a middle grade novel about friendship, sailing, and growing up at an overnight camp in northern Wisconsin.

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