Interview: Courtney Sheinmel
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In her debut novel, My So-Called Family, Courtney Sheinmel realistically captures the thoughts and feelings of a young girl who has always known of her origins: her mother went to a reproductive clinic, selected a donor based on a profile, and had a child. Though she's always loved her family - which now consists of a stepfather and little half-brother in addition to her mother - Leah decides to secretly seek out her extended family. (Read my full-length book review.)
In my recent exchanges with Courtney, we've talked about our favorite stories as well as stories about ourselves. In this interview, we discuss the importance of truth and acceptance, and celebrate all kinds of families.
First of all, please tell me how to pronounce your last name properly.
I have one of those last names that is hard to spell, and people are never quite sure how to say it. It's pronounced Shine Mell. My father tells me it means "pretty flower," but I don't know if I believe him.
Speaking of names, in your novel, your main character doesn't know her father's name at all. She only knows that he was Donor 730, and that her mother selected him based on certain attributes listed in his profile at the clinic. Did you select the donor number randomly or...?
730 is my sister's birthday, so that's why I picked the number.
Leah wants to meet her half-siblings, but she does not attempt to find her father. Was that due to her young age, state laws, and sealed records, or was a conscious effort on behalf of both author and character - that Leah didn't want to or need to find him?
The idea for My So-Called Family came partly from a segment on the Today Show. Matt Lauer interviewed a bunch of mothers who had had kids by the same donor, and had connected on the Donor Sibling Registry - a real-life website that allows kids of the same donor father to sign up and connect with each other. It's my understanding that the identities of the donors themselves are never revealed – the kids know their donors simply by number. I think it would be a violation of privacy for the donor names to be disclosed.
As for Leah, I imagine that she and her donor siblings would love to know the identity of their donor father -- I just don't know that they would ever legally have access to that information.
Do any of Leah's family members or family situation resemble your own relatives or experiences?
I don't think Leah's family members resemble mine, although my mom likes to tell people that she was the inspiration for Leah's mother, Meredith. (I don't know why she thinks that - maybe because Meredith doesn't seem to like to cook?)
Leah's experience of having a donor is not something I share, but I do come from a kind of blended family. My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and my mother's boyfriend, Phil, and his children are a very significant part of my life. I call Phil my "Faux Pa" - it seems more accurate and endearing than "stepfather." His children are my faux brothers and sister. And I've also gained three nieces and two nephews.
My oldest niece, Nicki, had her bat mitzvah this past May. At the party, one of her friends came over to us and asked, "So are you two related or what?" I started to say no, technically we're not really related -- Nicki certainly feels like my real niece, but I didn't want to embarrass her by saying something untrue. But Nicki cut me off and said, "Oh yeah, we're related." That's how I feel about her, too.
I adored Charlie. He, like his sister, sounded and acted his age. Was it fun to get into the mind of a little kid?
Charlie was probably the easiest character to write and I had a blast with him. Being an older sister myself, it seemed very natural to give Leah a younger sibling (although she has a brother and I grew up with a sister). And even though Charlie is only five years old, some of the things he says came directly out of my friends' mouths. He's very smart for his age -- Leah mentions that Charlie has a genius IQ -- so I hope my friends don't mind that I gave their lines to a kindergartner.
Would you ever consider writing another novel about Leah?
I don't have any plans to write about Leah again. I think the book ends with her in a really good place. But I would consider it, someday, if I had another idea for her.
Leah's mother writes self-help books for teens. Did you give her any of your writing routines or aggravations?
Actually, we have very different routines: Meredith writes at a desk, and I usually sit in bed with my laptop on my lap. Meredith kicks everyone out of the house when she is editing, and I tend to welcome distractions. Meredith doesn't tell anyone, besides her family, what she is writing about, and I always tell my friends. I even have a few friends who read my works-in-progress, chapter by chapter, as I write.
The thing we have in common is pretty embarrassing. Leah mentions that her mother practiced writing her signature before her first book came out, imagining how it would be when she had to sign actual books. I have to admit that I've done that, too. My best friend has samples of my signature from years ago. When we were in college I would leave her notes that said, "Best wishes from Courtney Sheinmel."
I find that endearing. My So-Called Family is your debut novel. Was it also your first completed manuscript, or have you written other novels or stories as well?
My So-Called Family is actually my second completed manuscript. My first is called Sincerely, Sophie/Sincerely, Katie, and it will also be coming out with Simon & Schuster . . . but not until 2010. And in between then and now, I have another book coming out, Positively, which is also with Simon & Schuster.
Was the title of My So-Called Family your first choice?
So far, I've come up with my titles on my own. I have a title in mind for my next book, so we'll see if that one sticks as well.
Your author bio says you're also a lawyer. What type of law do you practice?
I don't actually practice law anymore, but when I did I worked as a litigator, which means I spent a lot of time researching and writing briefs.
What drew you to that course of study, then that career?
Law school is different than college in that you don't "major" in a particular subject, so I didn't come out of law school all set to be a litigator. I sort of fell into that practice area – the firm I worked for had an opening in the litigation department, and I was hired when I graduated.
Please tell me more about your involvement with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) is amazing! It was founded in 1988 by three remarkable women -- Elizabeth Glaser, Susie Zeegen, and Susan DeLaurentis. I first learned about it 17 years ago, when I was 13 years old. I read an article about Elizabeth Glaser in People Magazine. She was married to the actor Paul Michael Glaser. But she was also a mother who was infected with AIDS, and she had unknowingly passed the disease onto her two children. After her daughter died, Elizabeth and her friends started the Foundation to try and save Elizabeth's son. I thought it was one of the most incredible and hopeful stories I had ever heard, and I began sending monthly donations from my baby-sitting money.
Over the years my involvement has grown -- I've volunteered at the Foundation's office and at different events, got my friends and family involved, and helped organize benefits to raise money for pediatric AIDS research. And Elizabeth's son, Jake, is now twenty-three years old and a very good friend of mine.
How can kids and teens get involved with the foundation?
The Foundation really encourages kids and teens to get involved. First of all, the Foundation is on a bunch of the social networking websites, like Facebook, MySpace and Change.org. If you're interested in the Foundation's work, you can join the networks and get updated regularly on the programs and fundraising efforts.
Elizabeth's life was a great example about how one person CAN make a difference, and young people can also make their voices heard in congress by lobbying their representatives. The Foundation also has great ideas and resources on how students across the world can start fundraising -- there's more information about all of that on the website: www.pedaids.org
But most of all, I think the best thing to do to honor Elizabeth and the work of the Foundation is to educate yourself about how you can and can't get AIDS, and to be accepting of other people.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
I don't think I have a top ten list for books -- more like a top one hundred. But here are ten of the one hundred, in no particular order:
Sunshine by Norma Klein
Autumn Street by Lois Lowry
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Littlest Rabbit by Robert Kraus
Drop by Courtney's website and blog.
Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2009)
Book Review: My So-Called Life by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: Stella Batts Needs a New Name by Courtney Sheinmel, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
Family: Courtney Sheinmel
Hope: Courtney Sheinmel