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Interview: Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

August 3rd, 2008 (08:32 pm)
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A trip to a national park made Kristin O'Donnell Tubb consider how things were for families living in the Appalachians in the 1930s. Further research moved Kristin to write Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different, a novel for kids and the young-at-heart, which will be published in October. Travel back in time with us.

Though Autumn is your own creation, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is real. Tell me about the true events which inspired your book.

I grew up in East Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I've visited the park dozens of times. But during a tour of Cades Cove in 2002, I realized, "This tiny cabin I'm standing in was once someone's home. What if my home became a national park? Would thousands of people tour it, and 75 years later, marvel at its small size and lack of 'functionality?'" So I did a little research, and soon uncovered the fascinating history of Cades Cove. It's true that the Cove is largely isolated, due to the swell of mountains surrounding it. And it's true that this isolation made the Cove attractive – not just beautiful, which it most certainly is (check out pictures), but attractive. Everyone wanted a piece of the Cove, from farmers who loved the fertile soil in the low lands, to loggers who saw big dollar signs in the tall timber, to the National Park Service, which wanted the Cove as a part of the park. When so many people want a thing as tiny as Cades Cove, some folks are going to lose, and so it's true that the families who lived in the Cove were treated very unfairly.

What do you think Autumn and Gramps would make of the park nowadays?

Autumn would likely be pleased to see the park now. The National Park Service had the foresight to know that once thousands of visitors started traipsing through the park each year, the unique Appalachian culture that had evolved there would be destroyed. So for years, researchers toured the area, recording everything about the residents: the types of clothes they wore, the kinds of foods they ate, the songs they sang, the stories they told. All of these artifacts are now cataloged in a library located in the basement of the Sugarlands Visitors Center in the park, and anyone can visit with an appointment. Aside from the crazy amounts of pollution pumped into the air each year from the tourists' autos, the park is very clean. Houses, churches, graveyards and schoolhouses have been preserved, though I'm sorry to say that many are marred by graffiti. Gramps, on the other hand, would be highly dissatisfied. He's kind of a grump, after all. :)

How much research did you do into the time period? The setting?

Most of my research centered on the Cove, rather than the time period itself, because the Cove was an anomaly – it was rather unlike much of America in the early 1930s because of its isolation in the mountains. The books that I own on Cades Cove and the National Park fill an entire shelf in my bookcase. In addition, I spent many an hour in that musty basement library in the Sugarlands Visitor Center. I still research the same way my freshman English teacher taught me (thank you, Linda McGill!), using handwritten notecards. Those fill a kid-sized shoebox. As for the amount of time it took to research the story, I started writing Autumn in 2002, and finished the last revision with my editor in early 2008.

If you could travel back in time to one particular decade in the 20th century, what decade would you select and why?

Would it be selfish to say that I'd love to visit 1910 Chicago, as that's where my work-in-progress is set? Specifically, I'd visit the vaudeville palaces. Through my research, I've become enamored with turn-of-the-last-century vaudeville. These live variety shows shaped the entertainment industry as we know it, in ways both good and bad. I'd love to hang out backstage with Buster Keaton and Harry Houdini and Sophie Tucker (though not all were touring in 1910) and really get the dirt of vaudeville under my fingernails. But I'd be backstage – no performing for me, thank you! Zero stage presence here. Though I suppose I could be one of the Cherry Sisters – they were billed as "America's Worst Act," and the crowd loved 'em, mainly because the audience was allowed to chuck rotten fruit at their awful singing! I mean, who wouldn't want to see that?!

I think that, had they been contemporaries, Autumn and Tom Sawyer might have been friends. (I doubt she could have been talked into painting the fence, though!) Which fictional characters would you befriend?

Oooo, I just love the thought of Autumn and Tom hanging out! Does that, by extension, mean I'd get to rub elbows with Mark Twain?! *fans self with well-thumbed copy of Huck Finn* But as for fictional characters: - Sally Freedman from Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Her imagination is miles wide. - Turtle Wexler from The Westing Game. I always wanted to be as free-spirited as this shin-kicker! (And by the way, I just saw online a t-shirt that reads, I Kicked Barney Northrup. How cool is that?) - Alaska Young from Looking for Alaska. She's just so darn mysterious and cool. - Spongebob Squarepants, because my daughter would go absolutely ga-ga!

You've written activity and tie-in books for established characters and series. How did you come to work for Holly Hobbie, Scooby-Doo, and Powerpuff Girls?

The term "right place at the right time" must have been written with the publishing industry in mind. I became the "voice" of Scooby-Doo and the Powerpuff Girls (in print!) by attending a local conference and meeting an editor with Dalmatian Press. Dalmatian specializes in coloring and activity books, and they have the licenses of some really great characters. And...they're based in my hometown, outside Nashville.

Writing for licensed characters is the ultimate training ground. Characters like Scooby-Doo have internationally known personas, so the writer has to have the voice down pat before the client (in that case, Cartoon Network) is satisfied. And most licensed products have very strict guidelines that one must work within: "You can make this like a journal, but it can in no way resemble a diary." Holly Hobbie came along a little later, when I sent out samples showing that I'd written for licenses. I adore writing characters like these, and hope to continue to do so. And I'd encourage anyone who is interested in writing for kids to look in to this outlet; like I said, you can't get better voice training than writing for a well-known character.

You've also worked for A+ Workbook. Do you have stringent guidelines for the workbooks, or did you have some wiggle room to be creative?

A+ Workbook is a division of Dalmatian Press, which is an example of how wonderful it can be to build a relationship with an editor and work with her on many different kinds of projects over the years. (My editor with Dalmatian – Kathryn Knight – is an amazing woman who I swear never sleeps!). The guidelines for A+ were stringent in that the formats were totally predetermined: 32 or 64 pages, one activity per page, written on a specific topic (say, "The World"), and for a specific age group. But then I was turned loose. So I got to choose which countries/animals/constellations to include, wrote all the activities, and organized the overall text. It was wonderful fun, and the research that I did for the "Space" book spawned the idea for the novel I'm working on now. Bonus!

What are your ten favorite books of all-time?

I know I'm overlooking some favorites by slimming the list to ten, but these are certainly near the top:
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The Giver, Lois Lowry
A Wrinkle In Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson
The Gospel According to Larry, Janet Tashjian
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Judy Blume
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Say howdy to Kristin at her website and blog.