Monday, March 6, 2017

Author interview: Rebecca Donnelly

I've never done an author interview on this blog before, and I'm so pleased to host my very first with Rebecca Donnelly, who is not only a member of our North Country library family, but also my very favorite person to eat a bagel with.

Angela: You're a librarian, a tea connoisseur, and now, the author of a middle grade novel set to be published next month. Can you tell us a little more about that last thing?

Rebecca: I'd be happy to, if you're sure you wouldn't rather hear about how much tea I drink in a day.

How to Stage a Catastrophe is a middle grade novel about a group of kids and their beloved Juicebox Theater. The Juicebox is a children's community theater in the Florida panhandle, and it's in danger of closing. Sidney Camazzola, who prefers to stay behind the scenes, narrates the story as if it's a play he's directing, complete with asides and notes and a little bit of confusion. Luckily, his best friend Folly has a head for business, new girl Jelly Baby is the artistic soul of the theater, and lead actress Beatrice has enough determination for everyone. The book publishes April 1 from Capstone Young Readers. 

And how much tea do you drink in a day?

Just enough to dehydrate me and make me wish I drank more water.

Now I've painted myself into a corner. Pretend I asked the tea question later. :)

What is it about community theater that made you want to use it as a setting?

I was an uninvolved child in general. I read, I ate peanut butter M&Ms, I occasionally irritated my brother. The one activity I got into and really enjoyed was the children's theater in my hometown. It was a completely amateur group and cast only children. They did a lot of musicals, which I wasn't into, and one or two non-musicals, which I auditioned for. I played Miss Spider in James and the Giant Peach and Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Hold your applause.)

There are a lot of stories that take place, at least in part, in the school theater setting (Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead, or Drama by Raina Telgemeier) or in a professional or semi-professional theater (Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle or Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt). I chose a community theater because a) there aren't a lot of amateur community theater stories in children's literature (she says, hoping someone doesn't come along & prove her wrong) and b) I wasn't cool enough to be a school drama geek, so I don't really know what that's all about.

Something that happens to writers over time is that they discover what their central story really is. (Maybe that's a generalization, but it's true in my case.) Kate DiCamillo said that what she wanted out of every book is to get everyone together in the same room. Ann Patchett said that all her books involve two groups of people who can't stand each other coming together in some forced circumstances and having to deal with each other. My central story seems to be a group of people coming together to try to save something, in a way that possibly reminiscent of Scooby Doo. A theater is a great place to set a story like that, because that's what theater is: a group of people who come together to try to do something, to build something, and also, I think, so save something. Even if it's just saving you from the status quo.

Photo courtesy of the author.
Which is what writers do also, do they not? Tell me a little about your story as a writer.

There are two stories to that: one is the story of being a writer, and the other one is the story of pursuing publication. The first one is probably a lot like most writers, in that I've always loved writing, always wanted to be A Writer, whatever that means exactly. Someone who wears comfy sweaters, drinks tea (there it is again), and looks out the window all day. Sort of like librarians. What's funny is that I think when you're a very little kid, you don't just write stories, you write books. Everything you write ends up as a picture book, because little kids illustrate everything and because you can punch holes in it, tie it up with yarn, and hey presto, now it's a whole book. Then you grow up a little and you write short stories (or maybe novellas) because novels at that age are so long, and then maybe you make the switch back to writing books when you're old enough to sustain that effort. For me, that age was about thirty.

Thirty is also when I decided that I really did want to go after my sweater/tea/window dream lifestyle, after a few years feeling a little lost as a young mom. So I wrote a terrible adult novel, got a single rejection form the single agent I sent it to, and around the same time I was lucky enough to start working as a children's librarian in the same system as Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, author of Bad New For Outlaws, among other books. I was reading children's books voraciously in order to be a better librarian, and something clicked. This type of storytelling, where you can be silly and adventurous and very real at the same time, appealed to me. I started my first middle grade novel in 2009, and that was the one that got me my fantastic agent, Molly Ker Hawn, in 2013. It sold in six weeks, but it was never published due to some turnover at the publisher, so we went out again in 2014 with the book that became How to Stage a Catastrophe, which sold to Capstone in 2015. That's about eight years from the beginning of my writing career to publication, but who's counting?

I haven't written a poem in ten years, but now I want to write one called 
sweater/tea/window. So, that's my writing plan. What's next for you?

I'm working on another contemporary middle-grade about a couple of pairs of friends, a diary, and a few misunderstandings. I'm on my second draft, after getting some feedback from my agent about places where I could be more clear, or characters who could use a little shoring up. For example, my agent mentioned that a character I really love didn't seem very nice, and I thought, What are you talking about? She's great, she's just misunderstood. That's the point. And it turns out that she really didn't seem very nice, so I've rewritten a whole scene for her in which I hope she appears more as I want her to be. So that's now, and I'm not sure how long that will take.

Well, I wish you luck and all the tea you can drink. Thanks for joining us here! 

Thank you for having me!

For more information, you can visit Rebecca Donnelly's website or follow her on Twitter. Or both. I recommend both.