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Interview: Helen Hemphill

February 27th, 2007 (06:51 pm)
awake

Current Mood: awake
Current Song: JoJo's Circus theme song

Runaround, a new novel for young readers, introduces readers to an eleven-year-old girl named Sassy. ( Read my entire book review. ) And Sassy she is! I spoke to Helen Hemphill about her sophomore effort, sibling rivalry, and growing up in the South.

What inspired this little Southern spitfire?

Sassy's personality reflects some of the spunk of my 86-year-old mother and the romanticism of my sister Sherry. My mom was a bit of a hellion as a child, so our family mythology is filled with stories about her beating up boys, smarting off to adults, and instigating swashbuckling adventures in the neighborhood. My sister Sherry is every bit her mother's daughter, yet she was (and is) a romantic at heart. Sassy's character draws on traits from both of these wonderful women, and the book is dedicated to them.

Sibling rivalry rears (and shears!) its ugly head throughout the story. Do you have siblings? If so, who in the family was the most like Sassy? Like Lula?

I'm the youngest of seven children, so there was lots of jostling for time and attention in our house. My own childhood was influenced most by my two sisters closest to me in age-we fought more than my mother would have wished, but we also were great cheerleaders for each other. I was a bit like Lula in that I loved to read and was probably the most girly of the family, but I was never considered pretty or popular in school. We did have a hair cutting incident, but it was mostly about bangs. That's why I have no pictures of me in fifth grade.

Your first novel, Long Gone Daddy, came out last year. Like Runaround, this is a family-related story, but with a slightly older protagonist and a greater emphasis on loss and faith. Was this your first completed manuscript?

Actually, it's one of the quirks of publishing, but Long Gone Daddy was my second completed manuscript. I wrote Runaround as my creative thesis for my MFA in Vermont. It took a while to find the story, but I always think of Sassy as the girl that wouldn't go away. She was a character that just had to be out in world.

Long Gone Daddy also details a father-and-son road trip. Do you have any road trip anecdotes of your own?

I have never taken a road trip with a dead body, but a girlfriend and I did drive the same trip that the Harlans take in Long Gone Daddy. I may be the only tourist in Las Vegas who went there specifically to go to the library, but it was a funny, interesting journey. (And the library was great!) We drove 1200 miles through desert and back roads, only to wreck the car turning into the rental car agency parking lot before flying home. The last block, the last turn. The car had to be towed into the lot, but we still made our flight. And yes, we had taken out the additional insurance!

How can families in your community get involved with the Tennessee Arts Commission?

The Tennessee Arts Commission is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a mission to bring the performing, visual and literary arts to communities across Tennessee. The Commission offers grants to support all kinds of local programming, as well state wide initiatives to encourage artists and arts organizations. I work as an educational Artist in Residence, which means I have the pleasure of teaching writing workshops to children across the state. To find out more, visit The Tennessee Arts Commission's web site: http://www.arts.state.tn.us.

Congratulations on your achievements in the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Thanks, the program was really life changing for me. Being part of that writing community allowed me to find my voice as a writer, to develop a discipline in regards to my work, and to meet some of the most wonderful people in the world-people who care deeply about literature for children. Plus I got to go to Vermont and do a drive-by of Katherine Paterson's house. How cool is that!

How old were you when you wrote your first story? When did you know you wanted to write for kids?

I don't remember when I actually wrote my first story, but I do remember being a great storyteller very early on. I could convince my mother of anything, so I learned quickly the power of story and how to tell a good yarn. As a teen, I worked on my storytelling ability constantly.

It was much later that I figured out I wanted to write for young adults and children. I left a corporate career in the mid 1990s and taught sixth grade for a few years. I was writing before that time, but it was during my teaching experience that I decided I wanted to write for middle grade readers. They are so funny and honest.

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Witch of Blackbird Pond (you may call me Kit...) by Elizabeth George Speare
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
Jim the Boy by Tony Earley
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This spring, you'll be speaking at many public libraries and conferences in Texas, South Carolina, and Tennessee. How can teachers and librarians arrange to have you speak at their schools and libraries?

I live in both Nashville and Austin, and will be out and about this spring visiting with students, teachers, and librarians. Working with young writers is one of my greatest joys. I do workshops and other writing programs as part of my school visits and as part of my work with the Tennessee Arts Commission. If someone would like me to come to their school or library, the easiest way to begin the conversation is to check out my web site at www.helenhemphill.com and then email me at readermail@helenhemphill.com

Note from Little Willow: I urge kids and adults to get involved with their local public libraries. Whether it is reading a book at Storytime to younger kids, assisting at the library book sale, or reshelving books, you can make a positive, personal impact at the library! Ask a librarian how you can help!

Read my 2008 interview with Helen Hemphill.