Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New Voice: Angela Cerrito on The End of the Line

Angela Cerrito is the first-time author of The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Robbie is locked in a room with nothing but a desk, a chair, a stack of paper and pencil. No belt, no shoes, no socks. He’s starving, but all they give him is water.

Robbie has reached The End of the Line, AKA Great Oaks School, and at Great Oaks there’s no time off for good behavior.

All good behavior will get you are points. Enough points and you get something to eat, a bed, bathroom privileges.

Thirteen-year-old Robbie’s first-person account of his struggles at the school—at times horrifying, at times hilarious—alternates with flashbacks to the events that led to his incarceration.

If Robbie is to survive The End of the Line, he must confront the truth: He is a murderer.


(Jacket photography by Edward McCain/Workbook Stock Collection/Getty Images.)

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Debuting in 2011 did not seem inevitable. There were times I wondered if this novel would make it at all and continued to work on other projects as I revised, re-revised and re-re-revised The End of the Line.

My journey started by subbing the first few pages to the (currently inactive) Smartwriters.com WIN contest in 2006. It was unfinished and middle grade, and I worried that it was just too dark. I was thrilled when the submission placed second in the middle grade category.

You were the judge, and you had the most encouraging words for the finalists. This inspired me to continue.

A few weeks later Roxyanne Young at SmartWriters.com wrote with the news that editor requested the full manuscript. I started waking up at 4 a.m. so I would have more time to write.

In addition to the WIN contest, some significant events along the way to publication were:

Reading the first few pages aloud at informal critique group meetings at SCBWI events (NY and Bologna, Italy). It was also significant to me that my friends who heard those early first pages continued to ask me about the project over the years.

An editor being totally honest with me –my setting was not believable and my climax was absent. She was 100 percent correct. I didn’t know much about revising at that point. I thought it happened after the contract and with the editor and author together. My writing was rough. Great Oaks didn’t come alive on the page. And I avoided writing the climax because it was too difficult for me. (This is explained more in the next question.)

An agent was totally honest with me and sent three pages of concerns about the manuscript. It was my first look at what a real revision would require. I actually highlighted the rejection letter and learned a great deal. Before this I’d only revised to chop words, strengthen sentences. I hadn’t ever taken the novel apart and tried to rebuild it. It needed so much work. But, thanks to this agent, I had a road map.

My critique groups – I belonged to an in-person critique group and online critique groups. The heartfelt critiques from these wonderful writers helped me a great deal with this novel and other projects too.

Continuing to learn from SCBWI conferences and workshops and being accepted to the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-one Plus Conference.

Whenever I got discouraged, I thought of the WIN contest, my SCBWI friends who heard the pages, my critique buddies and the encouraging words the first readers who read early drafts. They all wanted The End of the Line to succeed –and so did I!

The most significant step was connecting with Bill Reiss at John Hawkins & Associates. He liked the manuscript, wanted to represent it, and found a perfect home for the novel at Holiday House.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

The voice of Robbie wasn’t something I had to discover, I heard it in my head one day along with his greatest problem – he hated himself for his role in the death of his friend, Ryan.

It took me a lot longer to discover Ryan, and it was a long wait before I came to know him and could start writing the first page.

One day I was part of a conversation about several kids. One eight-year-old boy had been reported at school for not doing his homework. A month later, he was reported to social services for not being clean and for sleeping in school. They discovered the boy was the sole caregiver for his newborn sister. His father was not living at home, and his mom had postpartum depression and literally wasn’t getting out of bed to take care of the baby.

A friend told me about new kids in her neighborhood who were always hanging around her house. She was setting the table for dinner, and their eyes widened. The oldest said excitedly, “Look, she uses plates!” These were children whose meals at home were served in the can that was heated up on the stove. I knew by the end of the day that I had the building blocks for Ryan.

He would be a kid who pushed limits, broke a few rules, acted like he didn’t care. A kid who returned bottles to get money for food and tried (but failed) to take care of his newborn sister. A new kid who didn’t bother to fit in.

After I came to know Ryan, he told me his entire story. There is so much of Ryan’s past that didn’t make it into The End of the Line, an entire prequel. I love this kid as much as I love Robbie. Writing the scene of his death was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written.

(And this showed in the novel for many drafts because I didn’t dig deep enough to write that scene. I kept glossing over Ryan’s death and writing it in a very distant voice.)

I don’t think finding the voices of Robbie and Ryan were freeing my inner child but rather striving to “become” the characters. Even if it wasn’t related to the novel, I often asked myself “what would Robbie / Ryan think about (blank)?” The blank could be anything from a town I was visiting to a news story or a piece of artwork I liked. This never made it into the novel, but it helped me understand the two boys better and helped make their voices distinct.

The final revisions with my amazing editor (Julie Amper at Holiday House) did take me back to my childhood. Julie added so much to the novel. She asked me to clarify if Robbie and Ryan were really friends. Reflecting on fun times spent with my best friend, Jane, when I was Robbie and Ryan’s age helped me answer the question: what does being "friends" mean to Robbie and Ryan?

Cynsational Notes

Follow Angela at Twitter.

8 comments:

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Angela, I've heard bits and pieces about your book but never this full picture. What a powerful, painful storyline!

I'm amazed and heartened by the support and direction you received along the way -- evidence of a great story.

These characters sound like the type that will be with you forever.

Melinda said...

Girl, you're doing great! Love the interview and love the book of COURSE. :D

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

It's riveting, Caroline!

And Melinda, I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview!

Linda Lodding said...

As one of those lucky "listeners" of this story way back in Bologna, I am so proud of Angela for keeping this story alive and now seeing it into publication. What a great interview -- shows us that the writing process is not a solitare endeavor at all but relies on the constructive feedback on crit partners, other writers, editors, agents. But how wonderful that Angela knew what to do with all that feedback to make this into a wonderful book! CONGRATS again, again, and again.

GhostFolk.com said...

Angela Cerrito just blew me to pieces with her empathy for characters who lives are in dire straights. THE END OF THE LINE just became a MUST READ in my house! Thanks, Cynthia, for letting Angela tell her story!!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Linda, isn't it great to say, "I knew her when?" I love that early peek at voices on the horizon. And yes, it takes a village to build a book.

GF, I too was moved by Angela's obviously deep feelings for her characters. Enjoy the novel!

kathleen duey said...

Angela, I remember this one and am so glad you did the hard work to see it through. I am convinced that the best writers are actually the best re-writers. It sounds deep, emotionally true, and I look forward to reading it!!!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Kathleen, were you one of Angela's readers at a conference or something? I find these connections so interesting. All the hands who give a story a nudge on its way.

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