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Interview: Sherri L. Smith

February 18th, 2008 (04:19 pm)
thankful

Current Mood: thankful
Current Song: Barely Breathing by Duncan Sheik

I'm honored to be a stop on Sherri L. Smith's blog tour.

In each of Sherri's books, the protagonist's struggles are closely related to her family life: In Lucy the Giant, Lucy was abandoned her mother and feels burdened by her alcoholic father. In Sparrow, Kendall lost her immediate family at a young age, then her guardian grandmother on the cusp of adulthood. In Smith's brand-new story, Hot, Salty, Sour, Sweet, Ana's parents are loving, but her grandparents are competitive. Thus, the first question I posed to the author was:

Which girl is the most like you at that age and why?

Wow, that's a tough question. Readers sometimes assume that all books are autobiographical. I remember my first book signing for Lucy the Giant—the manager of the store took one look at me, frowned and said, “I thought you’d be taller!” I'm a good foot shorter than Lucy, hands down. While I can certainly relate to all of my characters — I have felt as awkward and ungainly as Lucy, and as lonely and determined as Kendall — Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is the first book I've written based on my life, or at least a version of my future child's life. My husband is Chinese American and I'm African American, like Ana's parents. Ana's story came about from my speculating about the lives our children will lead. Ana's family is actually pretty different from my own—fortunately there are no dueling grandparents—but there are similarities between my and my husband's families that I echo in Ana's story. Lastly, like Ana, I was also a salutatorian in eighth grade, but I didn't learn to make pot stickers until high school.

You've incorporated social class and cultural differences into all of your stories. What is the most difficult part about expressing these themes to a teen audience?

I guess I don't find it difficult. I grew up in a lot of different circumstances. From age 10 to 18, I had rubbed elbows both the rich (well, middle-class) man and the poor man, the country and the city mouse. I went to elementary school with the children of ambassadors, and junior high with kids whose parents worked at the local gravel quarry. The one thing I learned is that the human experience, in spite of the trappings, is the same—we all have the same range of emotions. Being a teenager heightens the experience—maybe it's hormones, or the newness of things. That's what makes writing for this age group so much fun. You get to bring new experience to readers that are open to and hungry for it.

What inspired the storyline in Lucy the Giant? How much research did you do into the crabbing boat life?

Tons. I spent a lot of time online with the Alaskan Fishing and Game website, and at the library reading everything from fishing books to coast guard rescue stories. That, compounded with my own fishing and boating experiences (Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, creek fishing), while much different from Lucy's, helped me to imagine what it would be like to sail the Bering Sea.

Sparrow takes readers to New Orleans, a place that, in real life, is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Have you been to Louisiana, pre-or post-disaster?

I've spent a lot of time in New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina/Rita. My mother was born and raised in New Orleans, and was living there in the house she grew up in when Katrina hit. She actually survived the storm and was in the city for about a week before we could get her evacuated. The minute we were allowed back to the city, we returned and she began to rebuild. I grew up visiting my grandparents and relatives in New Orleans and the city is very dear to me. New Orleans has such a deep history—from the food to the architecture, it is unique in all the world. That's one of the reasons I set Sparrow in New Orleans—it's a city everyone should experience at least once. After the initial outpouring of aid, the country seems to have forgotten the Gulf Coast, but they are at least ten years away from being "okay" again. I will return New Orleans again, in person and in my books, in hopes of keeping the city alive in people's thoughts.

You've traveled quite a bit. Where was your favorite place to live?

It changes as I change. When I was a kid, after my parents got divorced I considered home to be anywhere my brother and at least one parent were. When I got older, the world just opened up. I lived in San Francisco for a year and a half, and thought it was the most amazing place, a white city sprawled across green hills overlooking the sea. But I also lived in Manhattan, and there's nothing better than the long canyons the buildings form down the avenues. I studied in London for a summer and dreamed of moving there permanently to a flat near Hampstead Heath, and I couple of summers ago, I hiked across Crete and could easily imagine living over a taverna on the shores of the Libyan Sea. There are so many beautiful places in the world, the joy of it is you don't have to pick just one!

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet begins at a disastrous eighth grade graduation. Do you have any graduation-gone-wrong real-life stories?

Fortunately, I don't. In college we wore purple robes like Ana does, but I was smart enough not to jump into the fountain after the ceremony and avoided dyeing my skin purple, unlike some people… In eighth grade, our gowns were blue (in high school they were what I like to call "yak butter yellow"), but there aren't any pictures of the ceremony with me actually in them. My poor brother took the pictures with one of those old 110 cameras with the long rectangular body and a viewfinder that's just left of the actual lens. Needless to say, anyone standing just left of me ended up photographing beautifully. A corner of my face appears in every shot.

After graduation, Ana's grandparents try to one-up each other with gifts and promises of things to come. Why do you think people (mistakenly) equate with love and happiness?

Sometimes it's a generational thing. Ana's grandparents grew up in wartime when food and material goods were scarce. To be able to give them freely to Ana is a sign of prosperity and peace. I do think that it goes beyond generations, however. Today's society is very consumer-based. Advertising tells us that we can buy happiness and be like the people we see in the commercials. So, giving someone (or yourself) a shiny new toy is the symbolic representation of giving the intangibles we really want — love, comfort, joy.

Have you any advice for other authors of young adult fiction?

When writing for a teen audience, be honest. Remember who you were at that age and pour your guts out on the page. Then clean it up a little, try to make it a tiny bit less pathetic and a lot more interesting, and hope that the kernel of truth rings true.

Tell us about your work in the field of animation.

I proudly confess to being a Saturday Morning Cartoon fanatic — I grew up with 90 minutes of Smurfs and a good half-hour of Spiderman every weekend, and I held onto that well into my 20s (and 30s!). However, I was a film student and I wanted to work in movies, not animation. I actually stumbled into animation while working in the production office for Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! I hit it off with the animators and they hired me away to work on some stop-motion sequences. I loved it. From there, I got a job in story development at Disney TV Animation in the department that makes the direct-to-video sequels, like Lion King II. Every day was about creating new stories and working with incredibly talented artists to bring them to life. It was this storytelling that finally made me sit down and write my first book.

At your website, you note many books and authors which have inspired your writing and reading, such as Zilpha Keatley Snyder (one of my favorite authors as a kid) and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (one of my favorite books, period). What are your ten favorite books of all time?

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Dune by Frank Herbert
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silver King by Susan Cooper (Book Four in the Dark Is Rising Series)
Westmark by Lloyd Alexander (or The Book of Three . . . hard to say)

I'm afraid I'm going to leave the last two blank. There are too many to choose from and I know I'm forgetting something. I'll just kick myself later!

Join Sherri L. Smith on her blog tour this month:
February 12th: Finding Wonderland
February 18th: Bildungsroman
February 21st: The YA YA YAs
February 26th: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
February 28th: The Brown Bookshelf - "28 Days Later" Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature

Visit Sherri's website.

Comments

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: February 19th, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)

From a. fortis: I love this interview! Insightful questions and fascinating answers, too. I especially loved hearing the reasons why she enjoys writing for a teen audience. Also, thanks for asking about the research behind Lucy the Giant--I just finished reading it and was amazed at how Sherri brought the whole setting alive.

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