I’m absolutely ecstatic to kick it off with an interview with Kathryn Erskine, author of IBHUBESI: THE LION, QUAKING, and the forthcoming MOCKINGBIRD (due out from Philomel on April 15, 2010).
Please tell us about your forthcoming novel, MOCKINGBIRD.
Here's the short answer: A girl with Asperger's must deal with the loss of her beloved brother, killed in a school shooting. The longer answer is that I wanted people to understand what it's like to have Asperger's and have to navigate through tough issues, which are tough for all of us, but even harder for those with Asperger's. I also wanted to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in school shootings, like the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. And draw attention to the senselessness of it. And the hope that if we could all get inside each other's heads, maybe we could understand each other better.
What was the inspiration—what led you to write about Asperger’s? (And please tell us a little something about Asperger’s…I actually had to google it!)
My daughter has mild Asperger's. I think the easiest way to describe it is that people with Asperger's see the world a little differently so they're not always on the same wavelength as most of us and therefore, to us, they seem socially awkward (they may avoid eye contact, spin in place, shake their hands, interrupt, speak too loudly for the situation, laugh at the wrong places) and say inappropriate things (off-topic, too blatantly honest). They're not so good at "taking the hint," such as a co-worker trying to get someone to leave him alone, saying, "Don't you have some work to do?" ("No.") or "I've got some work to do." ("Oh."). Often there is some interest they have that's pretty intense and that's basically what they want to focus their time, attention, and discussion on, even if you don't. They may have sensory issues, too, feeling overwhelmed by noise, the way things feel on their skin, strangers, or just too many people in general. It's really a broad range of things and most people with Asperger's have some of these to some degree.
Set the tone for us: If MOCKINGBIRD were a movie, what song would be playing during the opening credits?
And that's exactly what she does.
What would Matt, the main character from your previous novel, QUAKING, think of Caitlin, the main character in MOCKINGBIRD? What would happen if they were to, say, meet up in school, or take a class together?
Matt would like Caitlin very much because of her honesty and, as Matt would put it, her ability to cut through the crap. She would also consider Caitlin brave for saying what she thinks. If they were to meet, I think Caitlin would like Matt, too, knowing that she was a good, honest person. Just because someone has Asperger's and isn't so good with social cues does not mean they don't have accurate gut feelings about people; in fact, they can often be better at sussing out people than the rest of us.
What will your fans be pleased to find in MOCKINGBIRD? What will surprise them?
Do I have fans? You're very kind! I think readers will be pleased to find that it's a very easy story to read and understand. They may be surprised that there's as much humor as there is, considering it's about a girl dealing with Asperger's and the death of her brother.
What fuels you as a writer? What makes you get up every day and put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)?
When I choke up at the subject matter, I know it's incredibly important to me, which means both that I have something I really have to put into words and that I will probably write about it fairly well because I feel so strongly. The subjects tend to be weighty, and I know others are dealing with these issues, too. I want to give hope and encouragement -- there's always a way out, always someone who will help, even if that someone is yourself.
That, and computer games -- I want to show that there's still value and gratification in reading a book, living a story, and thinking. Just thinking.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
That initial surge of ideas and characters and (sometimes) plot which all come in such a deluge and my typing fingers can't keep up with my brain. It's so exciting to see a story being born. That whole creative blitz, and the neurons firing with new ideas and characters, that's the best part. I sometimes feel that I'm just a conduit and the story is pouring out and I'm the scribe. I love being the scribe.
What’s your favorite part of the publication process?
Holding a book in your hand. Kindles and iPads and recorded books are all great, but there's nothing like holding that three-dimensional object and seeing the words, hearing the pages turn, and even smelling the ink or newness that comes from a book.
How did you get your first book deal? An agent? Slush pile?
I was very lucky with QUAKING. It's a long story, but through a series of very fortunate events, I knew Patti Gauch already from a workshop and conferences, and had a chance to submit the manuscript to her. Through a series of unfortunate events, it took a while for the manuscript to get to her, back to me, back to her, etc. but in the end everything worked out happily.
What do you know now that you wish you knew as an unpublished writer?
Less is more. I laugh now at the cover letters I used to write where I widened the margins to maximize the number words I could squeeze in about all my non-accomplishments. With picture books, less is more, too. Certainly under 1,000 words, preferably fewer. And you don't need to explain all the pictures because you're taking away the artist's creativity. With novels, write everything you want but then go through and trim the fat. Of course, I'm a lawyer, so writing short is not my forte. Maybe others don't have this problem!
I love the fact that your work is always so topical. I really can’t imagine you ever writing anything “fluffy.” If you could branch out, try writing in another genre or for another age group, what would it be?
Tease us, entice us—leave us a juicy tidbit that’s going to make us all run to the bookstore and grab MOCKINGBIRD off the shelf!
Well, here's something that amazed me -- Andrew Clements (FRINDLE) read it! Sharon Creech (WALK TWO MOONS) read it! And they loved it. Wow.
…Kathryn Erskine grew up in six countries, which gave her an appreciation for different cultures and seeing the world through other people’s eyes. Her books introduce readers to different worlds while tackling difficult subjects. Despite the weighty topics, in the end there is always hope borne out of community, wherever and whatever that community may be. You can visit her online at http://www.kathrynerskine.com/, or http://www.kathyerskine.wordpress.com/.