Friday, September 6, 2013

An Interview with Jennifer Allison

Yesterday I had the privilege of posting a review of Jennifer Allison's newest book, Iggy Loomis.  Today I have the privilege of interviewing this wonderful author.  I read her first book when I was a middle grade fiction judge for CYBILS.  I was hooked.  I hope you enjoy getting to knowing a bit more about such an inspiring author.  I want to thank her for taking the time to answer my questions.

          Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My first novel for middle-grade readers, Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator (, was published in 2005. When I started writing the Gilda Joyce mysteries, I was teaching high school and had no children. By the time I published the fifth book in the Gilda Joyce series, my life had completely changed: with three young children (an older son and boy-girl twins), I was now spending a lot of time reading books by Dav Pilkey, R. L. Stine, and Jon Scieszka aloud to my kids. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed sharing these humorous, irreverent, so-called “boy books” with young readers, and was inspired write a story of my own for the elementary school set. I still have plans for another Gilda Joyce mystery, but I have had great fun branching out to younger readers and parents with IGGY LOOMIS.

Where did the idea come from?
The theme of sibling friendship (and sibling rivalry) in IGGY LOOMIS: SUPERKID IN TRAINING was inspired by my own three kids. Mirroring the structure of the Loomis family, I have boy-girl twins (Marcus and Gigi) and an older son (Max). When I first got the idea for the story, my twins were only toddlers and they could dismantle an entire house in about a minute with the sheer force of their energy and curiosity. Not surprisingly, their older brother was torn between the fun of playing silly games with them and the annoyance of repeatedly discovering that pages had been chewed out of his favorite books or that the Lego model he had just built was broken to bits.

As a parent, it’s hard not to sympathize with the babies of the family who only want to be like their big brothers or sisters, but older siblings have it tough too. Growing up, I was the oldest of three kids, and I remember feeling genuinely baffled when I was held to a higher standard of behavior simply “because you’re the oldest.” To a child who can’t yet empathize with “age-appropriate behavior,” a toddler’s outburst can seem like a superhuman force of destruction. When that destructive baby-power is doubled (or, let’s face it: tripled) in the form of twins, the role of the older sibling can become even more challenging. I was reflecting on sibling relationships and found myself wondering what it would be like for an older brother to discover that one of his younger siblings had real super powers. What could be more unsettling than dangerous superpowers combined with a toddler’s lack of impulse control? Then I saw my recently potty-trained younger son wearing his “awesome” big-boy underpants over his jeans so that his preschool friends could see them. I had just caught a glimpse of my baby-superhero character – Iggy.

What are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of writing?
The most enjoyable aspect of writing for me is the “discovery” phase – coming up with ideas for stories and getting to know new characters. I also feel the greatest reward when I have the opportunity to read my stories aloud to readers who respond with laughter and interesting comments, and who talk about the characters as if they are real people who matter. While children’s book authors are sometimes treated less seriously than writers for adult audiences, we do have the privilege of writing for readers who care about books in the deepest way possible. For a child, a favorite book isn’t just entertainment; it’s a life experience! Revision is always difficult: the combination of creativity and problem solving needed to delve back into a completed manuscript can be daunting. I’m lucky to have an editor at Penguin Books who pushes me to make a book stronger at moments when I’m a little too eager to move on to the next project.

Do you listen to music when you write?
If I hear a song I love, it can actually be a distraction because I start listening to the music rather than the voices of characters I’m trying to “hear” in my mind. For me, writing is like controlled daydreaming; once I’m fully present to the story in my head, I’m not paying as much attention to the real world. (And for this reason, parenting and writing are not things I can do well at the same moment! If my kids are home, I usually need to get a sitter and head for the library or a quiet cafĂ© with my laptop and notebooks in order to get serious writing accomplished.)

Do you have any habits when you write?
My first (very rough) drafts are often written out longhand in a notebook because this allows me to feel more open and creative when I’m discovering a new story. Once I know the characters and the general shape of the story, I type my first draft, printed out, and then mark up the pages with lots of notes in the margins. I usually need to repeat that process several times before I’m finished.

What are some surprising facts about you that most people don’t know?  
As a college student, I worked summers for General Motors, building engine clutches. They said I was “a natural” when it came to building those clutches. No kidding! I trained to become a concert pianist, and began college at the University of Michigan as a music major. (I switched to English during my second year.) I once badly injured my finger while slicing a piece of headcheese for a customer when I worked at a deli.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently revising book #2 of the IGGY LOOMIS series. The working title is A Hagfish Called Shirley. And yes, even books with ridiculous titles sometimes require extensive revision.

In your opinion, what makes a book good or bad?
Maybe this is a clichĂ©, but I do believe that a book that seems "bad" to one reader might be the perfect book for someone else. It might even be a great book for that same reader to rediscover at another time.

When I taught high school English, I occasionally had the experience of assuming that my teenage students would love a short story or novel, only to hear their sullen comment: "I didn't like it." When I probed why they didn't like the story, the answer was not that the book was "bad," but that it made the uncomfortable in some way, or that it pushed them to higher reading level by presenting them with an unfamiliar structure or writing style. When introducing books to young readers, it's very important to respect their opinions, but it's also important for them to think about why they either liked or didn't like a particular book.

As a writer, I kow I'm reading a "good book" when I'm not thinking about the writer's craft or the marketing department's strategy for reaching a particular audience: I'm believing that the characters are real, and that I care about them. It's harder to come by that experience as an adult, and I certainly value it when it happens.  I just (belatedly) read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I found very captivating. A few decades ago, that book would have been published as a regular novel for adult readers rather than being
marketed as "YA." Maybe the best books are the ones that ca be enjoyed by both adults and children at different ties in their lives. As a parent, a "good book" is any book that keeps both my kids and me engaged. Laughter is always a plus!

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