Friday, November 30, 2007

Author Interview: Niki Burnham on Goddess Games

Niki Burnham is the author of six books and two novellas for teenagers. Her first book for teens, Royally Jacked (Simon Pulse, 2003), was named a Teen People Pick. She has also written six romance novels for adults (under the name Nicole Burnham), winning the RITA award in 2004. Niki has a website and an active bulletin board at www.nikiburnham.com.

We last spoke in October 2005. Could you update us on your releases and high points since then?

I've had a few books out since then! The first was a romantic comedy called Scary Beautiful (Simon Pulse, 2005), about a teen I thought of as "the dreaded pretty girl." Many of us assume that if you're gorgeous, the world is yours. I wanted to show that the stereotype doesn't always hold true. After that was the third book in the Valerie Winslow series, Do-Over (Simon Pulse, 2006). It follows Royally Jacked (Simon Pulse, 2003) and Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004).

In Do-Over, Val--whose parents were getting divorced in Royally Jacked--has to deal with her father starting to date again. He chooses someone Val thinks is horrid, which makes her question what she knows about her father and about herself.

Finally, I had a novella titled "Night Swimming" in a collection called Fireworks (Scholastic Point, 2007). The other authors in the collection are Erin Haft (author of Pool Boys), Sarah Mlynowski (of the Bras & Broomsticks series), and Lauren Myracle (who wrote TTFN)(author interview). It was a blast to be included with them.

Congratulations on the publication of Goddess Games (Simon & Schuster, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Goddess Games tells the story of three girls--Seneca, the daughter of an Oscar-winning actress, Drew, an athletic Army brat, and Claire, a struggling born-again Christian--who are thrown together as roommates when they each take summer jobs at a posh mountain resort. Needless to say, they aren't three people who'd instantly bond!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I've had all three of these characters in my head for quite a while. For instance, I've always wondered how a teen Christian group would respond if a well-known party girl suddenly proclaimed that she wanted to hang with them. Would they believe her? What if they reject her? Would it shake her newfound faith? That character ended up being Claire in the story.

Also, I'm an Army brat, so news stories about Iraq and Afghanistan hit home for me. To that end, I've been toying with the idea of writing about a teen who unexpectedly loses a father to the war. I made some notes about a girl whose father goes to Iraq. It's obviously a dangerous place; however, the girl thinks her dad is going to be relatively safe, because he's assigned to a so-called "safe zone" and assures her he'll be fine. She's shocked when he's killed. I wondered how things would be for her at school. Would other kids with parents in the military feel differently about her? How would her mother take the news? What if her mother got depressed, so there was no one for the girl to turn to with her grief? Would she bottle it up? Would she move on and try to act like nothing happened? That character became Drew.

Finally, I had an outline for a story about a girl whose mother is an Oscar-winning actress on my hard drive for quite awhile. I wanted to explore the idea of what would happen if Mom's career suddenly tanked. How would that affect her daughter? I knew that story needed something more to it, so I put it aside and worked on other projects.

Then, a couple years ago, I went to a writers' conference at a gorgeous spa in the Rocky Mountains. I got to thinking about all the summer employees, who lived near the property, and had a lightning-bolt moment: what if I put all three of those girls in a cabin together? They'd hate each other! The story practically wrote itself from there. I knew these three girls would be able to see both the seriousness and the humor in each other's situations, once they got to know one another. (And it was loads of fun to research it!)

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

All three girls in the book were dealing with serious issues, but I didn't want to write a depressing book. That's just not me. I like funny! Finding the humor in each character was a challenge, but a very rewarding one. In the end, each of these girls is able to laugh at herself, and I hope readers can laugh along with them.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

The teen years are a huge transitional time in anyone's life. Teens are learning about who they are and who they want to become. They feel like adults, but often have a lack of control over their lives (teachers, coaches, and parents dictate much of what they do.) Even though it's a struggle, teens have a wicked sense of humor about their own situation. I love writing about that experience.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I'd tell myself not to worry about things that are out of my control, which means everything other than the quality of my writing. I can't control reviews or whether certain books of mine make the bestseller lists. I can't control whether a particular bookstore stocks enough copies of my books, a shipment of books get lost, or a book signing ends up occurring during a huge thunderstorm. But if the writing is good, and readers believe in the characters and love them, the rest will follow.

What is your best tip for book promotion?

Have a great website! Not only is it your public face, it's a great way for readers to find you and interact. Mine has a bulletin board (so readers can connect with each other and post their thoughts about what they're reading), excerpts of all my books, notices of events, and information for librarians and schools who are interested in having me visit or do a call-in Q & A session. I also use the site to offer bookplates and bookmarks to fans who might not be able to get to one of my book signings or other events.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I do my best to prioritize. Family comes first--that's a no-brainer. The writing is second. I plan my writing time carefully so that I'm not rushed to meet deadlines. That helps keep me (somewhat) sane. I draw up a calendar for each book and use it to plan out the number of pages I need to write each week. I work hard to stick to that weekly page goal so projects don't become overwhelming. I also make sure I take into account that emergencies are going to pop up, and float a few "emergency days" on the calendar. And I always mentally give myself a deadline that's a few weeks ahead of the real deadline for a book. It takes off a lot of pressure.

I plan any promotion and/or speaking around the writing and family obligations. Having a detailed calendar has been my salvation on this front!

What are your three favorite YA reads of 2007 and why?

First, at the risk of looking like I'm kissing up to my interviewer (which is so not my style): I thought Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) rocked. It was spooky, it was funny, and it was offbeat. I read it in only two sittings.

As to other books, I absolutely loved Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl (Little Brown, 2007)(author interview). The opening of the book is brilliant, and I thought Zarr did a fabulous job of building tension throughout the novel.

E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List (Delacorte, 2005) came out a couple years ago, but I just got around to reading it last week. Wish I'd pulled it off my to-be-read pile earlier! Her voice is hilarious and filled with emotion at the same time. I'm now dying to read The Boy Book (Delacorte, 2007).

What do you do in your so-called spare time?

I play softball, work on training my new puppy (an energetic poodle named Tipper) and garden. I also have season tickets to the Boston Red Sox (my husband and I split them with five other people), so from May to October, I'm at Fenway Park as often as possible.

What can your fans look forward to next?

In May 2008, I have a novella called "Last Stand" coming out in a collection called Breaking Up Is Hard To Do from Houghton Mifflin/Graphia. All four stories center on break-ups and make-ups that take place during the first week of school.

"Last Stand" is told from the boy's point of view, which made it a kick to write.

The other authors are Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, and Lynda Sandoval, all of whom are phenomenal writers. Needless to say, I'm psyched about the book!

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