Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Linda Urban: A Crooked Kind of Interview

Linda Urban is the author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, a novel for middle grade readers. There is buzz about this novel, people. BUZZ, I tell you.

I first met Linda () at the New England SCBWI Conference in 2006, where she was presenting a workshop on setting up successful book events. Linda was the marketing director at Vroman's Bookstore, a large independent bookseller in California, so she knows whereof she spoke. We hit it off when we sat together at a workshop about comedy writing, and I opined (sotto voce) that a joke for children involving a planet (Saturn, I believe) would've been funnier if it involved Uranus.

I was privileged to read A Crooked Kind of Perfect in manuscript form, and to offer minor bits of assistance here and there, for which Linda has given me more credit than I merit in the "Acknowledgments" section at the end. When I reached the end of the manuscript, I found that for the first time in the book, the tears in my eyes weren't tears of laughter, but of — what? Recognition of the perfect, simple beauty of this book, perhaps, or appreciation for way that so many things, so many apparently slight things, came together in the ending to form the perfect chord. I later found that the song, "Forever in Blue Jeans", would never be the same for me; what I'd considered a rather frothy song is now precious, and can make me cry. But I digress — this is about Linda, after all, or is meant to be. So, without further ado, on to the interview:

1. A Crooked Kind of Perfect is your first book in print, but I know you sold a picture book manuscript first (Mouse was Mad, coming in Spring of 2009). Was it surprising to you that a novel moved into print so much faster than a picture book?

Picture books are amazing things, works of art really. They need time. Time for an illustrator to take the words on a manuscript page and make them his or her own. And time to then get that new story on the page. And more time to make sure that all the mechanical stuff of paper selection and printing and binding and whatnot follows through on that story. (Mouse was Mad is currently being illustrated by Henry Cole.)

A novel is mostly about the words. Book design is important, but mostly it is about the words, and so often the bulk of that happens before a book is even sold. It’s no surprise that a novel comes to press more quickly.

In a related question, which is harder to revise — a picture book or a novel, and why?

I think it depends on the project. I will say that I have a tiny, scattered brain and keeping a whole novel in my head is harder to do than spreading out the three pages of a picture book and making sense of them. Still, you can fudge a little bit in a novel in a way that you just can’t in a picture book where every single word has to be exactly right.

2. A Crooked Kind of Perfect tells the story of young Zoe Elias, who really wanted to be a piano prodigy, but was forced to learn to play on an electric organ from a mall in the Detroit area. The author bio in the back of the book leads me to believe that part of the set-up was biographical, what with you wanting to play piano, having an organ instead and living in the Detroit area as a kid. Was that a conscious choice on your part? If so, was it hard to separate yourself and your memories from the new character you created? Did Zoe end up with a lot of your personality characteristics or your personal experiences in addition to having an organ?

The story, like everything I write, has roots in my experience. But our lives aren’t stories. They don’t usually have beginnings, middles, and satisfying endings the way stories do. There’s lots of extra stuff in them, too, like folding the laundry and watching Monkees reruns and waiting for your sister to get out of the bathroom. You cut things out that are boring and you add things that are not (hopefully) and you make things follow a path that has some logic.

As for Zoe: she’s very different from me. Smarter. More patient. Funnier. The events of our lives sometimes echoed one another, but her interpretations of those events and her reactions to them were very different.

3. I must ask about Wheeler Diggs, the "bad boy" in Zoe's grade who seems never to take his denim jacket off. How did you manage to create such a hot fifth-grader? (Grin.) Or, if you prefer, why did he show up in this book — was he initially a character that fit at Zoe's house or at her school, and how did he move into the other universe (assuming he ever belonged only in one sphere)?

I’m so glad you like Wheeler. I like Wheeler. I wish I had a Wheeler in my fifth grade life.

Wheeler showed up in that first scene – the Career Day scene – and I never expected him to do anything more than illustrate how Zoe’s family challenges made her feel isolated at school. And then he just kept popping up. When he followed Zoe home, I was as surprised as she was.

4. Madame Person (it's Per-saaahn) was probably my favorite adult character in the book. In the hands of another writer, she could easily have become a bit of a caricature (if only because of her name and her extremely funny exclamations, such as "Holy Mother of Mozart!"), but you managed to keep her very real. What advice do you have for readers who are trying to write eccentric characters, but who don't want them to move into the area of "camp"?

As for eccentricities, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have them. Part of writing is picking details. If I were writing a very serious novel about a child with true talent and a drive to get to Carnegie Hall, I might also have a Ms. Person, but instead of letting you see the Mozart’s Postman side of her, I’d have shown you the row of childhood trophies in her own small apartment, all lined up by the fireplace, not a one of them first place. That’s too sad for a funny novel, so you leave it out and focus on the silly stuff — but you don’t forget about those old trophies. They are what keep her human.

Also, one of the things I most admired about all the adult characters in the book — whether it's Ms. Person, Mr. and Mrs. Elias, Hugh the UPS guy, or even Zoe's friend's mother — is that none of them are "bad guys," even if some of them make Zoe's life more difficult than it has to be. Was that a conscious choice on your part? Can you talk about that a bit?

Do you know any bad guys? I don’t. There are people I don’t know personally who I think of as bad guys, but I’ve been lucky enough in my life that even the crummy people I’ve gotten to know have redeeming qualities. Zoe’s not the kind of kid to see bad guys anyway. She’s a “just my luck” kind of kid.

5. I know from your website that you used to be a bookseller at Vroman's, one of the oldest and largest independent bookstores in southern California, and that you used to plan events for them. Did working as a bookseller (who was trying to plan events and hand-sell books) influence the way that you read books? Did it alter your ideas of what it is you look for in a book?

I used to think of the books I loved as my own private treasures. Being a bookseller changed that. I became an evangelist.

It also gave me the opportunity to read more. Small presses. First novels. Unique voices.

I hope I don’t lose all credibility here, but I have to admit that I’ve not yet read a Harry Potter book. By the time I caught on to them, they were already wildly popular and customers sure didn’t need me to recommend them. Instead, I told people about brilliant but not-quite bestseller books like Sue Stauffacher’s Donuthead or Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness or Marla Frazee’s Walk On. It’s a pretty rewarding thing to match a great book to its ideal reader. And it is also important to know that not every book is going to appeal to every reader. That lesson is a good one for writers to remember, too.

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?
Cheese. Lazy Lady Pyramid, to be specific. It’s artisanal cheese made locally. It tastes like France.

Coffee or tea? P&G Tips “England’s No 1 Tea” it says on the box.

Cats or dogs? Dogs.

Favorite color? Barn red.

Favorite snack food? Manghi’s Almond Granola – also made right here in Montpelier.

Favorite ice cream? Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Though I’d actually prefer a frozen banana dipped in chocolate.

Water or soda? Diet Coke, I’m afraid.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Neil Diamond, of course.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Since the kids were born I haven’t seen many movies. My favorite movie line of all time, though, is from Singin' in the Rain, spoken by Lena Lamont: "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."

Given the joy Linda's brought to so many with her wonderful first novel, I'd say her hard work is decidedly not in vain.

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