Jo Knowles, here. I'm happy to be visiting today with an interview with the talented author and incredible human being, ELLEN WITTLINGER! Ellen is such a cool person. She's written tons of incredible books, including HARD LOVE (A Printz Honor Winner), LOVE AND LIES, PARROTFISH,
THE LONG NIGHT OF LEO AND BREE, and many many more.
Ellen's latest book, THIS MEAN'S WAR, is one of my favorites. Ellen was kind enough to visit here to talk about writing contemporary YA and middle grade fiction.
Jo: You’ve been writing contemporary novels for several years now. What drew you to writing contemporary fiction for children and teens? Or did you simply write a story and it turned out that way?
Ellen: I was writing poems and plays early in my (so-called) career, but then I got a job as a children's/YA librarian in our local library in Swampscott. My own kids were pretty young then so I was familiar with the books for their ages but less familiar with the YA stuff. I figured I ought to have a better idea what was on my shelves, so I read a lot of reviews and tried to catch up on the best books of the past few years. I loved SO many of them, particularly, Katherine Paterson, Ron Koertge, M.E. Kerr and Brock Cole. Cole's book Celine blew the top of my head off. I decided I wanted to write YA books like that. In fact, I outlined the book so I could get an overview of what he'd done. It's still one of my favorite books ever. And then I just sat down and wrote my first YA: Lombardo's Law and never stopped.
Jo: Oh! I LOVE Lombardo's Law! LOVE that book! :-) Your latest book, THIS MEANS WAR (which is another favorite-OK, I love ALL of your books), is for slightly younger readers AND it’s historical fiction. I know you’ve written for this age before, but it’s been a while. How does this experience differ for you personally, if at all? And what inspired you to write about this time period?
Ellen: I really enjoy writing for a slightly younger audience, but it never feels quite as natural to me as writing YA. I never want to be writing down to kids and I guess I feel it's easier to fall into that if you're writing for younger kids. I don't worry about that with YA because I'm basically writing for me--and I still am a teenager in many respects.
I'd been thinking about writing a book set in the 60's for quite a while. This was such an incredible decade and so much changed during those years--in my own life and in the country and the world. More than any other decade I've lived through. I thought first I'd write about the Kennedy assassination, which had a big impact on me, but as I started to do research and remember more and more about that time, it occurred to me that the really significant event for me was the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fear it engendered in me and my friends.Who knows, there may be another 60's book in me before I'm through!
Jo: Yes please! I would like that very much. :-) You did such an amazing job conveying the complex mood during that time, Ellen. OK, here's another one: Are you a plotter or a plunger? How does this work for you?
Ellen: Definitely a plunger. But the more books I write, the more I think the plotters have the right idea and maybe make the job easier for themselves. As a plunger I tend to go back and rewrite a lot because I don't know where I'm going. These days I tend to try to plot a few chapters ahead, at least, so I have some idea what's coming next, but I hate to give up the idea that the character is taking me on a ride and I'm following along behind, taking notes.
Jo: I hear you. I have such a hard time plotting, but it does seem like the plotters get where they want to go a lot faster than us meanderers (I think I made up that word). :-) Where do you find inspiration?
Ellen: All the usual places: friends, children, books, nature, traveling.
Jo: If someone said, Hey Ellen! “I love your work so much! I will pay you a million bucks to write WHATEVER you want,” would you write?
Ellen: Wow, wouldn't that be great? I think I'd write another play. I always loved writing plays--it's such an energetic art form. You have to get all the information across through dialogue, body language, staging, etc. And seeing your words come to life in an actor's mouth is fabulous. The downside is that there are only about four playwrights in the country who actually make any money at it and you're on the road a lot. I gave it up once I had kids.
Jo: I know what you mean! I love looking at plays to study how much gets across through dialog alone. What an art. I hope you give it a go! Next question: Do you work with a critique group, and if so, do they look at a complete work, or a few chapters at a time?
Ellen: I have two critique groups actually. One is the group I met with when I lived in Boston. We now meet halfway between here and there about every 6 weeks at a Panera Bread place. This group is all YA writers and we read complete mss which I find most helpful. I also belong to a group here in the Northampton area which has been around for ages and has a very different way of working. We meet once a week (unless we don't have a quorum which is often the case in the summer) and don't read anything ahead of time. Because these folks write everything from picture books to poetry to YA to adult books, every week is different. You read what you've brought and then the group discusses it immediately.
Jo: Sounds like a great combination. Before you leave, can you recommend some personal favorite realistic YA novels?
Ellen: As mentioned above, I love all of Brock Cole's novels, especially Celine. Other top choices would be the Make Lemonade trilogy by Virginia Euwer Wolff, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart, Feed by M.T. Anderson, John Green's books, the Hunger Games trilogy, and lots, lots more!