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Interview: Bonnie Dobkin

December 10th, 2006 (05:34 pm)
Current Song: Surfin' Safari by The Beach Boys

Dream Spinner, Bonnie Dobkin's first novel, weaves together the stories of two sisters, a popular teen couple, a mysterious professor, a dog, a tapestry, and a talented spider. (Read the full review.)

The story actually came to the author in a dream, though it was years before she put pen to paper and made her dream into a full-length novel. The result is something that taps into the fears and pasts of the characters as well as the readers.

When and how did the idea for the story strike you?

Literally, in a dream -- one I had years and years ago, when I was a teenager myself. There was an old man, very dark and quiet, and he was trying to get my friends and me to drink a strange glowing liquid that was swirling in a glass vial. I knew it was dangerous, and that he was evil, and I resisted. The old man got angrier and angrier -- and then I woke up.

I never forgot that dream. I suppose it was some kind of drug allegory, but eventually it morphed into something larger, a symbol of what people do to escape reality. I didn't want to use something as simple as a potion, though, and I looked for another device. Then I heard an old song, "Dream Weaver," and I thought, "What if someone really could weave dreams into reality, and the dreamers could go in and live out their fantasies?" Then the story began.

Whose backstory was the most extensive before you put pen to paper?

I probably shouldn't admit it, but the backstories grew AFTER I put pen to paper -- or fingers to keypad. I tend to start sketching out the story with fairly two-dimensional characters, and then learning about them as they react to what happen. Then I ask myself, "What would have made this character react that way?" Or, "what would be a more interesting reaction here, and what kind of person would act this way?" Then I go back and rework the character, which in turn affects the story all over again. It's a very circular, recursive process.

Jori, for example, kept evolving as I worked on the story. At first, she was simply a feisty, brave girl in a family where the father had died and the sister had fallen into a depression. But as I continued to work with her, I realized that for the message of the story to have real impact, Jori herself had to be wounded, had to have issues, had to grow. So then my feisty girl got reimagined: she was in the accident with her father, suffered emotional and physical hurt, became angry and bitter. In other words, she became real.

Which character did you enjoy writing for the most?

Jori, my main character. She's a mix of all the traits I most admire, and she probably represents the me I wish I were. When I wrote for her, I was able to BE her, be the kind of strong, forceful personality that can take on anything life throws at her. I could also enter the tapestry along with her and experience all the adventures.

Of course, I also enjoyed my odder characters -- the spider Arachnea, the talking gate, and the wolf, Ragar. Just as Jori allowed a form of me to enter the story, the others let me be someone I wasn't.

Tell us about Rookie Readers.

I'd always wanted to write children's books, but at one point I was working full time and raising three young children. Someone then gave me some good advice: "Write what you have time for." Well, I had time for little books, and I discovered the Rookies, which are aimed at beginning readers. Because I work in educational publishing, this seemed a natural fit. Plus, I had three little boys to provide inspiration. So I began crafting short little stories or poems that either reflected what I did with my sons (I Love Fishing), or explored high-interest topics (The Great Bug Hunt), or taught important concepts (Just a Little Different). But I also discovered something else: writing high-interest books with a simple vocabulary is hard work. Eventually, though, I did manage to complete seven of them.

In your author biography, you are described as "a frighteningly ordinary and well-behaved child." In your novel, you bring the dreams of characters to life, turning them into frightening adventures. What frightens you?

Actually, I love dark and frightening things. In fact, three years ago I was on a reality show, Mad Mad House, where I lived in an Addams family-type mansion with a witch, a vampire, an African priestess, a naturist, and a modern primitive. I also have the best Hallowe'en decorations on the block every year, and love a good horror movie. If I'm going to be honest, though, I do have a problem with spiders and cockroaches (unlike Jori), and a pretty bad fear of heights. And for some reason, I've never been able to handle the big haunted houses at Hallowe'en -- walking through the dark, with things jumping out at me, makes my hair go gray(er).

What are your hobbies and interests outside of the writing world?

I love to sing and perform. From the time I was little, I've performed in children's theatre, school plays, community theatre, and, for a year, as a singing wench at a place called the King's Manor in Chicago. I've been Anna in The King and I, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Sharon in Finian's Rainbow, and a host of other roles. I probably get a bigger rush out of performing than anything else -- maybe when I retire, I can do it full time!

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

My most recent favorite is The Thirteenth Tale, a wonderful new book with a delicious Gothic storyline. Dark, moody tales have always been favorites of mine, as have fantasy books and books with strong characters. You'll see many in the rest of the list:

The Secret Garden
Jane Eyre
Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider series
Poisonwood Bible
The Red Tent
Kite Runner
The Xanth books
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Harry Potter books

Visit Bonnie at her website and MySpace page.