Friday, May 24, 2013

All About THE FIRE HORSE GIRL: Behind the Book, Q&A, & Giveaway!

I owe you an apology, dear readers. Due to the blog hiatus I've taken for most of the year thus far, it's entirely possible that you have gone an entire five months without hearing about Kay Honeyman's The Fire Horse Girl -- and if that is so, then you have been MISSING OUT. Because while this book isn't fantasy, it features many of the things I love best from the girl-power-fantasy novels that are dear to my and so many readers' hearts (think Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Bunce, Kristen Cashore):
  • A heroine who's stubborn, willful, kind, outspoken, out of step with her society -- and utterly wonderful
  • A plot that offers her the chance to make a better life for herself, if she has the courage to take it
  • A love interest who's equally well-developed, and has an agenda of his own
  • Terrific characters all around
  • Tense action scenes
  • Swoony romance scenes
All tied up in a story that sheds light on a too-little-known fact of American history:  the existence of Angel Island, the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island, where Chinese immigrants (and usually Chinese immigrants only) could be held for weeks, months, or even years. But the book is never heavy -- only real. As a matter of fact, as I'm thinking about it, I may have done you a FAVOR by holding out on you so long on this book, because it would make delightful summer reading:  meaty enough that your brain doesn't rot with the sweetness, but still pleasurable all the way down.

Kay Honeyman is just as much fun in person as she is on the page, and I'm glad to have her here for a Q&A.

How did you come to write The Fire Horse Girl? I always have trouble backing up to the beginning of writing The Fire Horse Girl. My first instinct is to say that the story began to form when I heard about Angel Island. It was a slice of American history and specifically America’s immigration history I only discovered as an adult.

But, I wouldn’t have attached so strongly to that setting if my husband and I weren’t in the midst of adopting a child from China. I was not just drawn to the place, but its stories because my son would have his own immigration story. At first, I imagined all the wonderful things that the child would gain by coming to America. When I looked at the story from my perspective, my son Jack was gaining a home and a family. He would live in land of opportunity and possibilities. But when I considered his point-of-view, he was coming to a strange house in a strange country to live with strange people. It opened my eyes to the price that people pay to immigrate.

If you take the inspiration back one step further, it started with a deep love of stories in general. I used to lay the big books on my parents’ shelves in my lap and read every two and three-letter-word that I knew.
The Fire Horse Girl probably came from all of those layers of inspiration plus a lot of work and a little serendipity.

What sort of research did you do? The kind that piles up in boxes and notebooks all around the house. The kind that involves Friday night trips to the library because I really need to find out the names of ships that travelled between China and San Francisco in 1923. The kind that you have to shake yourself out of because you have a story to write.

I read novels set in China like Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. I spent hours on the Angel Island Immigration Foundation website. I read Chinese poetry and took Chinese language classes because the rhythm of structure of the Chinese language is very different from English, and I wanted to have a feel for it. I also researched the poems on the walls in the barracks at Angel Island. I filled notebooks and files with picture of the dorms at Angel Island, kitchens in 1900 China, and alleys in Chinatown. I wrote lists of details in the margins of scenes. I poured through Arnold Genthe’s pictures of Chinatown before the fire that destroyed Old Chinatown in 1906 (same year that Jade Moon was born) because I wanted to dig through the rubble that formed the foundation of the Chinatown Jade Moon would have to navigate.

I think the most important part of my research was my trip to China to pick up Jack. It isn’t that I picked up specific details that I put in the book, but it gave me a richer understanding of China and the Chinese. It gave me a peek at the rhythms of life, community, and family.

What was the most difficult part of writing or revising the novel for you? What flowed the easiest? The first draft is the hardest for me. Writing that initial version is frustrating because it never lives up to the image of the story I have in my head. It doesn’t even come close. Neither does the second or third or twenty-third draft, but in later drafts you have progress you can measure. For me, a first draft is just bad, it isn’t better than the last, or moving closer to the story I want to tell. It is just messy and so very, very wrong.

On the other hand, I love revision. It is exciting to find the right fix for glitch in the story or develop a moment into its full potential. I love watching the rough edges of a story smooth into this glassy surface that the reader can skate across.

I especially love the moment in the revision process when you aren’t guessing anymore, when you aren’t experimenting, when the story is more right than wrong. It feels like turning into your neighborhood after a long journey. It doesn’t mean the work is over, but there’s the sense that you are heading to a place you’ve been trying to get to for a long time. 

How much of the book did you have planned out before you wrote it? Are you a plotter or a pantser generally? Uhhg, you had to ask. And I tried so hard to hide it. I am a pantser who tries desperately to be a plotter. I am a very organized person. I love lists and papers stacked across the top of my desk. I make multiple outlines, but the story strays so far from the outline that I’m not sure I get to claim the title of plotter. Maybe I am just a horrible plotter. Is there a category for that?

I do like one element of being a pantser/horrible plotter. I tend to have a very fluid vision of the story. I’m more likely to see why something could happen then why it couldn’t. And I have a high tolerance for revisions. I don’t have any illusions that something must happen.

Admit it:  You’re a Fire Horse girl too, right? (I am an Earth Horse myself!) Even if you aren’t:  What qualities do you most and least admire in Jade Moon? Are they qualities you yourself share? You are an Earth Horse! Did you know we are both hard-working signs? However, your sense of humor is far superior to mine.

I am a Water Ox – patient, dependable, determined. I would make a disastrous character in a novel because in a crisis I make a to-do list and label color-coded file folders. So, I am pretty much the opposite of Jade Moon, but I admire her strength and spirit of determination. I also admire her big dreams and the way she ignores the impossibility of them.

I come from a family of strong women. My sister is a Fire Dragon and my son Jack and my mother are both Fire Pigs. I love people with a fire inside them. They bring fresh perspective and passion to life. They aren’t afraid to burn through the old to see if there is something better behind it. 

The trait I most share with Jade Moon is probably the one that gets her in the most trouble – her stubbornness. However, a little stubbornness can help you hold your own, teach eighth-grade, and write a book.

What books have been the most influential in your reading and writing lives? I open every book expecting to be delighted, and I take in some element from most books that I read. I would probably make a terrible editor, but I make a great reader.

I love Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice. I love any book that looks at a society – F. Scott Fitgerald, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Mitchell.

There are also so many talented contemporary authors in YA.  Elizabeth Eulberg (Lonely Hearts Club, Take a Bow, Prom and Prejudice, and Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality) creates characters with flaws that just make them more relatable and more charming. Paul Volponi (The Final Four, Rikers High, Rucker Park Setup, Black and White) packs sweeping stories into tight settings and timelines. Whole stories get threaded through the overtime of a Final Four basketball game. It is like a gritty Hemingway if Hemingway wrote about basketball instead of bullfighting. I could go on and on. The more I write, the more I find to admire in other writers.

I also keep a few books on writing at my elbow. My two favorites are Second Sight (I am unabashedly slipping it into this interview because I tell everyone how amazing it is). Since I can’t email you every time I have a minor dilemma or a major nervous breakdown, I keep it close. I also love my Synonym Finder (love, adore, cherish, esteem, prize, etc.).

What are you reading now? And writing? I just finished 52 Reasons to Hate My Father by Jessica Brody. It is always fun to watch teenagers realize that their potential soars far above people’s expectations. My first summer read is going to be Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

I am working on a book set in West Texas. It is about Friday night football, small towns, and politics. It is full of women with sweet smiles and sharp tongues, high-stakes competition on and off the field, and a love that takes a few detours. I want to tell the story of a girl who discovers the beauty in life’s imperfections.


And what the heck, we'll do another giveaway here too, for a proper hardcover edition this time. Calculate your Chinese Zodiac sign and tell me both what you are and whether that (or any other form of astrological sign) matches your personality. (I don't think I'm a particularly notable Horse, for instance, but I am totally Queen of the Virgos -- a similarity between sign and personality that fascinates me, even as I think most daily horoscopes are bunk.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A "Breakdown" on Breaking Down a Manuscript; Two Conferences; and a Personal Best

There's a new Narrative Breakdown up at the website -- this time on Revision Techniques (Part I), as James and I talk through a few of my favorite methods of figuring out what you want your book to do, what it IS doing, and how it can be made to do all of that better. If you've read Second Sight or taken any of my classes, these will not be news to you, but it might be fun to listen anyway. (Talking about outlining is everyone's idea of a good time, right? Right? Yay! So you'll enjoy this.)

Registration is now open at the Dakotas SCBWI website for a full Novel Writing Workshop with me, October 4-6 in Custer, South Dakota. This workshop will involve my Plot Master Class on Saturday and my intensive talks on Character and Voice on Sunday, and it's the only conference appearance I'm making the rest of this year, due to my upcoming wedding and honeymoon. Other than this, I do not plan to offer said Master Class again (online or in person) until next spring, so here's your chance if you want to catch it in 2013.

I will also be at LeakyCon in Portland June 27-30, participating in general shenanigans.

Finally, I will admit to using my blog as commonplace book and diary as much as means of transmitting information, and as such, I've made a habit of recording my running times here to track my progress through the years. Now I have a nice new personal best to note:  The Brooklyn Half-Marathon, May 18, 2013, 1:59:28 -- with a personal best 10K in there too, at 56:39. Woo! I never get over the pleasurable strangeness of me, a longtime Enemy of All Things Exercise and In Particular Running, being able to do multiple miles in a single bound. (Or many bounds, really. You get the idea.) 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Scholastic Fall 2013 Online Preview

Our twice-a-year roundup of selected titles deemed of especial interest to librarians is now live at! You can see a wide number of Scholastic editors and authors present the books we've been working on for your delight. Check it out here.

On my end, I talk about If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, mentioned below, and the awesome The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, the first-ever full-length narrative nonfiction book I've had the pleasure of working on. It's about the hunt for Adolf Eichmann -- the operations manager for the Holocaust, more or less -- after he escaped Nazi Germany post-World War II, so it combines elements of a mystery novel, a spy story, a Holocaust tale, and a revenge thriller . . . and the pictures we've found for it are just fantastic. Come this September, I'm excited to show you more!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What I'm Publishing: Summer 2013

If anyone ever accuses me of publishing only one kind of book, I will first laugh uproariously and then, stone-faced, point them to this blog post:

June 2013
The Queen of the Universe has a wonderful room --
and unfortunately, she has to share it.
(Unless you have a very special monitor, this image does not show 
the copious and delightful amount of glitter on the cover.)

May 2013
The only Jewish summer-camp math-genius Kabbalistic fantasy novel you'll ever need.

June 2013
A gay book for the Glee generation,
about being out, being proud . . . and being ready for something else.
"One of the best gay-themed YA novels of the past ten years."
 -- Michael Cart, Booklist, starred review
August 2013
A beautifully written historical YA by an acclaimed adult novelist,
about the transformative powers of good friendship and good music. 

You can see the complete Arthur A. Levine Books summer 2013 lineup on our website here, and Like us on Facebook here. Thank you for keeping an eye out for all of these titles!

Monday, May 20, 2013

All About THE PATH OF NAMES: Behind the Book, Q&A, & Giveaway!

Because I have the last name "Klein" and I live in New York City, a lot of people I meet here assume I'm Jewish -- an assumption that I'm fine with, even as I called myself the "imprint shiksa" for my first few years at Arthur A. Levine Books. So while it's entirely possible that Ari Goelman's agent sent me the manuscript for The Path of Names because she thought I might have a religious connection to the material, I fell in love with it for my own reasons:
  • Some of the realest kid characters I've ever read in a novel, with dialogue that exactly captures the way kids can switch from snarkiness to sensitivity in a turn.
  • With that, a terrific sense of humor and jokes that made me laugh out loud more than once.
  • A 12-year-old heroine -- Dahlia Sherman -- who loves performance magic and math more than popularity and fashion, and who holds herself a little apart from her peers in part because of that lack of shared interests, and in part because she fears their rejection. (This was probably my real point of identification with the book, I do confess it.)
  • A totally original combination of elements:  A contemporary Jewish summer camp story set in Pennsylvania and starring Dahlia, crossed with a story about a yeshiva student named David in the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1930s, both shot through with fantasy and mystery.
  • A terrific title. 
  • A kind of magic I had never seen before in a fantasy novel -- and when you've read as many fantasy novels as I have, that's saying something. 
The challenge such books face in the publishing industry is that they'll often be regarded as "only for Jewish readers" -- just as books about girls are only for girls, or books about gay kids as only for gay kids, or books about Latinos are only for Latinos. If you aren't yourself Jewish, then you should read it and help us explode those stereotypes; and if you are Jewish -- and especially if you went to a Jewish camp as Ari Goelman did -- then you'll find even more to recognize and enjoy in the book. It is certainly the only book I've edited ever to be written up in The Times of Israel, as "A Jewish Harriet Potter." And it's also received a starred review from Booklist.

I'm delighted to welcome Ari Goelman to my blog for a Q&A.

What novels were the biggest influence on you when you were a young reader (ages 8-18)? As a middle-grade reader I loved the Susan Cooper ‘The Dark is Rising’ series, especially the novel The Dark Os Rising. I also loved the book The Silver Crown, and (as I got older) pretty much any high fantasy I could get my hands on, starting with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and ending with ... whatever the latest high fantasy was. As a slightly older teen reader I discovered Steven Brust and Roger Zelazny – especially loving Brust’s To Reign In Hell and Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Which, now that I think about it, were both pretty centrally concerned with magic and religion, albeit in a totally different way than The Path of Names.

There are so many interesting ideas packed into this book -- summer camp, Kabbala, magic (real-world and fantasy), mazes, Lower East Side history. . . . Where did it start for you? How did these other elements develop in it? I think it started with a summer camp story, and evolved from there. Once I decided to set the story in a Jewish summer camp, I thought, “Hmm. Jewish summer camp – Jewish magic. That seems to make sense.”

Then, once I started thinking about Jewish magic, that naturally led to Kabbala and the rest. I’ve always been interested in the somewhat forgotten elements of Jewish folklore. I was raised as a conservative Jew where the party line was, ‘We don’t believe in magic. Or the afterlife. Or demons. Or witches...’ I was a young adult before I started to come across references to all the Jewish superstitions that saturated the Jewish world for centuries before the Enlightenment.

Described in that way, it might make me seem a little smarter than I am. Here is the way it actually worked: I’d be in synagogue for a cousin’s bar mitzvah or such, and there’d be a mention of an anecdote in the Talmud about a rabbi hurling lightning at another rabbi. The lesson would supposedly be something about tolerance or arrogance. But I would sit there thinking, ‘A rabbi hurling lightning? That is so cool! I would love to read a fantasy story about that.’

As far as the parts set in the Lower East Side, my grandfather grew up in the 1930s Lower East Side, and I always loved the stories that he and my great uncles would tell about their boyhoods in the tenements. When I was older I discovered that he had visited the spot in rural Pennsylvania which ultimately became my summer camp some fifty years before I was a camper there. I loved the thought of somehow combining those two milieus.

The fantasy magic in the book is based in what I understand to be a very esoteric Jewish religious practice – the Kabbala – but the book isn’t religious at all. Dahlia and the other kids spend very little time contemplating God. You also have a provocative epigraph where you quote Bernie Cloud:  “Religion is just magic, but with more words.” How do your own relationships with religion and magic emerge in The Path of Names? I think I very much share the ambivalence towards Judaism (and organized religion in general) that is evidenced in The Path of Names. It was fun to write a story where all the Jewish magic works. The world would be so much simpler if you could verify religious belief systems with some sort of physical manifestation ... say, calling down lightning on your enemies. Religion aside, I find magic and the supernatural creeps into most everything I write. I’m not totally sure why this is. Like I mentioned before, I’ve always been an avid reader of fantasy literature. Maybe it comes from my general interest in ideas of power and resistance, especially when they’re operating in ways that are secret, or at least hard to see. I have this sense (which I think is pretty broadly shared in contemporary society) that power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few in ways that are hard for the rest of us to see, let alone to resist. Also -- let’s face it -- magic is fun. It would be fun to be a thirteen-year-old with the power to change things, even if the odds seemed stacked against you.  

What is your favorite part of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, etc.) and why? Oh geez. That’s a hard one. On the one hand, writing the first draft is definitely the most difficult part for me. You’re staring at the blank page, and you have so far to go before it’s done, and it probably won’t be any good anyway, and shouldn’t you work on a new blog post, or maybe go start on dinner or something? Contrast that to revising, where you have a manuscript and you’re reading it and making it better. On some level, I’m scared of the blank page in a way that I’m not scared of revising. Now here’s the complicated part – difficult as it is for me, the mingled feeling of fear and distaste ... and excitement when I write that first draft is the reason I write. That feeling of creating something new is the best part. If I go a few days without writing something new, I start worrying that I’m never going to write anything again. I don’t like that feeling. 

A couple of reviews have praised the book for having the main character, Dahlia, be a smart girl who loves math. Did you envision the protagonist of the book as a girl from the beginning, or was that a deliberate choice later in the process? What challenges did you face, if any, in writing across gender, and how did you overcome them? I always saw the protagonist as a girl. When I wrote the short story that eventually grew into The Path of Names, I had this very clear memory of a girl at my summer camp complaining about how another girl wasn’t friends with her any more. I ended up making Dahlia far more independent than that girl, but there was never any question that the main character would be female. The challenges that I faced had to do with uniquely female things – for instance, how much would a thirteen-year-old girl notice the curviness or the lack of curviness of her peers? Being married to a former thirteen-year-old girl who is happy to answer these kinds of questions was invaluable in overcoming this obstacle.

You have a five-year-old and a set of very young twins at home. Plus you teach. How do you work in any writing time? Do you have a set schedule or process? The short answer is: it’s hard. Not just to work in writing time, but to make the most of the writing time I have, given the exhaustion of being a working parent with three small children. More often than not, one or more of our beautiful little people is sick or getting a tooth or just generally dissatisfied with their sleeping arrangements and would like to express their displeasure repeatedly at 1:00 a.m. 1:30 a.m., 2:30 a.m. and so on. I’ve discovered that I can do a pretty good job at some tasks when I’m tired, but writing a novel is not one of them. There’s too much to hold in your head, and too much concentration required. Having said all that, I do try to write to a set schedule, as I think the alternative is a ‘no writing’ schedule. I am still making progress in my ongoing writing projects, just not nearly as fast as I would like. 

What are you reading now?  I just finished reading Steven King’s The Wind at the Keyhole which I thought was great, especially the two stories-within-a-story. I have just started Seer of Shadows by Avi, but I’m still too early into it to have formed an opinion. I’m also reading Harry Potter to my five-year-old (who would probably like me to point out that she’s almost six), and I’m enjoying it through her eyes all over again. 

Please visit Ari's website.


GIVEAWAY! Though The Path of Names is in stores now (hint hint hint & hint), you can win one of my three remaining copies of an ARC of the book by leaving a comment below with any of the following:  one thing that you've never seen in a fantasy before and you'd like to; your own provocative epigraph (or epitaph, if you prefer); or the identity that people mistake you for based on your name, if applicable.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

MISSION TO TEACH: In Honor of Jhumki Basu

Soon after James and I began dating, lo these many years ago, I met his friend Jhumki Basu -- one of the most energetic, accomplished, and inspiring people I've ever known. She helped found a charter school in Bed-Stuy devoted to democratic learning, and especially to the goal of encouraging urban youth to pursue science. She got her doctorate at New York University and became a professor there in science education. She ran triathalons, wrote poetry, traveled widely, agitated politically, took care of her friends. And then in 2009 -- "tragedy" does not begin to cover this -- she passed away from metastatic breast cancer at the age of 31.

Now her father, Dipak Basu -- who is also James's and my friend -- has written a book about her life, entitled Mission to Teach. It is not only a full biography of Jhumki, it is also a father's memoir of his daughter; a brave and heart-wringing cancer narrative; and very much the story of a coming-of-age of a teacher, of how Jhumki's pedagogy evolved through her years of teaching and research, and how her work continues through the educational foundation her parents set up in her name. The foreword by Jane Goodall (yes, THAT Jane Goodall) states, "This is a powerful, beautifully written book," and in capturing the spark that Jhumki was to so many people, I couldn't agree more.

The book is available at all major online retailers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can read more about it here, and about the ongoing science-education work of the Jhumki Basu Foundation here. Thank you for checking it out, and for keeping the spark alive.