Interview: Courtney Sheinmel
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Welcome to the 2009 Winter Blog Blast Tour! (You may ask yourself, "What's a WBBT?" Click here for the answer.) I'm happy to help kick off this year's events with this interview, in which Courtney Sheinmel considers character names, middle school memories, and cheese, as well as more serious matters, such as AIDS awareness and the effect of divorce on children.
I started things off by talking about her newest book, the positively wonderful novel Positively, which I highly recommend.
Your second novel, Positively, is about a young girl who is HIV-positive, having acquired it from her mother during the pregnancy. The story was inspired, in part, by your involvement with The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which we talked about in our previous interview. When writing Positively, you were no doubt drawing on past experiences and people you've known, some of whom have lost their battles... It must have been a difficult story to write.
Oh yes, writing POSITIVELY was extremely difficult. The narrator, Emmy, has to face life as an HIV-positive teen, and as a motherless daughter. I had some very emotional conversations with kids I know, who have experienced both of those things.
But more than that, sometimes I felt like I didn't have a right to tell the story. After all, my mom is alive and well; I can see her and speak to her whenever I want. And I'm HIV-negative, and don't have to take pills several times a day. I wanted to do right by Emmy, and I didn't want to offend anyone who was living with HIV. One night I had dinner with Elizabeth Glaser's son, Jake. He has been HIV-positive since birth, and when he was ten years old, he lost his mom to AIDS. I told him that I was really scared and that I felt like a fraud. He encouraged me to keep going. He said he believed in me, and believed I could tell the right story. I will always be grateful to him for that.
How did you select the name for your lead character, Emerson, better known as Emmy?
Sometimes I name characters after people I know, but in real life, I don't know anyone named Emerson. It was important to me to give her a name that wasn't attached to any of my friends or family members. I love androgynous names for girls, so I was thinking about Dylan or Blake. My agent suggested I give her a more feminine name, and I was quite pleased with myself when I thought of Emerson, because of the nickname "Emmy." I gave her the middle name Louise, so her dad could call her "Emmy Lou."
I wish I had a meaningful, poetic answer to why her name is Emerson – like it was inspired by a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. The truth is that I just really love the name, and I think it suits her: it is beautiful, complicated, and unique, and to me Emerson is all of those things.
I like the sound of that. Both of your novels to date have modern, blended families: Emmy's parents were divorced, and her dad has remarried and is about to have another child; in My So-Called Family, Leah's mom went to the reproductive clinic in order to have Leah, then later married and had another child. Why do write about complex character relationships and family dynamics?
Relationships with stepparents and stepsiblings are very important to me; and really, they seem like a natural part of life. My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and for years I lived with my mom and my sister in New York, and my dad lived across the country in California. I am extremely close with both of my parents. We now have a sort of blended family. My mom ended up meeting a wonderful man, whom I call my "faux pa" (it seems more endearing than stepfather). My faux pa's kids are my faux brothers and sister. I've also gained three nieces and two nephews. I adore them all beyond words. I speak to my faux sister nearly every day. My oldest niece is fourteen, and she was one of the first people to read POSITIVELY. I think, when I sit down to write, it is easier for me to imagine families that are not necessarily traditional but are no less loving.
If Leah and Emmy were to meet, where and how do you think that would transpire? What set of circumstances would cause those two characters' paths to cross, and how would they get along?
I have honestly never thought about this! I suppose there are an infinite number of ways that their paths could cross – particularly because they both live in the tri-state area. In each of the books, there is a scene in Manhattan, so I think they'd meet there, perhaps at the carousel in Central Park. Maybe Leah's mother, Meredith, went to college with Emmy's dad, Bryan – maybe they even dated back then, but they broke up and lost touch. Now Meredith and Bryan are both married – to other people – and have kids. They recognize each other waiting on line to buy carousel tickets, and everyone goes out for lunch at the Boathouse. I am certain Leah and Emmy would get along – they are both nice kids, and they're accepting of people's differences.
Leah and Emmy are both thirteen. What were you like at that age?
Thirteen was a tough age for me. I was in eighth grade and I had a few close friends, but mostly I felt like I didn't really fit in. I went to an all-girls school in Manhattan, and some of the kids were pretty wealthy, but money was always tight in my family. We lived outside of the city, in a small apartment, and we didn't go on vacations. I was also much, much shorter than the other kids. It sounds like a silly detail, but back then I was incredibly self-conscious of my height; I was more like the size of nine-year-old. I didn't feel all that comfortable around my peers because I felt so different. I babysat and read a lot – memoirs, fiction, magazines. One day I picked up a copy of People Magazine and read an article about Elizabeth Glaser, which is how I got involved with the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. But by the time ninth grade rolled around, I was much happier socially. I think there's a big difference between middle school and high school.
How old are the protagonists in your forthcoming books?
Sophie and Katie of SINCERELY, SOPHIE/SINCERELY, KATIE are both eleven years old, and Carly in YOU CAN'T EVEN MEASURE IT is twelve.
What draws you to write for that age? What compels you to write for that audience?
I think the "tween" voice comes very naturally to me – in fact, most days I don't feel that much older than my protagonists. I have such vivid memories of middle school, and I think that's the time that really shapes a person, and determines who you're going to be as a grown-up.
The funny thing is, I didn't start out intending to write kid lit. When I was in college, I wrote mostly memoir and I just assumed that my first book (if I ever wrote one) would be in that genre. Then I graduated, went to law school, and started working as a litigation associate. One night I was having dinner with my friend Allyson, telling her about how I really wanted to be a writer instead of a lawyer, and the idea for an eleven-year-old character just came to me – the character that ended up being the narrator of my book SINCERELY, SOPHIE. That's when I started seriously writing. I tell Allyson that having dinner with her changed my life.
I would like to write in another genre, someday – I'd love to write a memoir, and write adult fiction. But for now I'm in the kid lit world, and I really love it here.
My So-Called Family was your first published novel, but not your first completed manuscript; that honor belongs to Sincerely, Sophie / Sincerely, Katie, due out in 2010. Who are Sophie and Katie? How long did it take you to write their story, then sell it?
Sophie and Katie are pen pals who live in New York and California respectively. They are basically strangers but they start to confide in each other, and it becomes easier for them to handle some of the trials and tribulations going on in their homes.
It took about six months to write Sophie's story. Then I sent the manuscript out and, miraculously, I found my wonderful agent fairly quickly. He made a few suggestions, I tweaked the manuscript, and it sold to Simon & Schuster about a month later. It was an absolute dream-come-true. Later on, my original editor resigned and my publication schedule was changed up a bit. By that point I had already written Katie's story, so now the SINCERELY books are finally coming out together on June 10th.
Tell me more about You Can't Even Measure It, which comes out in 2011.
This book follows seventh grader Carly Wheeler, who has a pretty cool life – she is happy, popular and smart. Her mom has a great job as a stylist at a soap opera, so Carly gets to bring her friends backstage and hang out with celebrities. But her life is turned upside-down the day FBI agents come to her house to arrest her mother for a white-collar crime. It turns out that Carly's mom was stealing money from her job. Writing this book was the first time I've worked any of my legal knowledge into a piece of fiction!
I think it's cool that you were able to combine those two parts and paths of your life. You've taken part in a lot of author events and panels this past year. Do you like speaking in public, or do you get nervous?
They say most people fear public speaking more than death. I'm definitely more afraid of dying than speaking in public, but I still get nervous when I have to do it – heart pounding, palms sweating, the whole thing. It's easier for me if I don't know anyone in the audience. When my family and friends are there, I feel so strange and self-conscious. I'm not sure why, since they are all so supportive.
Have you met any of your own author idols?
I have been so incredibly lucky on this front, as I've met a bunch of the writers I admire most. When I was a kid, I idolized Judy Blume and Ann M. Martin above all others. Judy Blume was the author of the first chapter books I read on my own, and the person who made me fall in love with reading. When my parents divorced, I carted around IT'S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD for months. I must have read it a hundred times. I met Judy Blume in person just before MY SO-CALLED FAMILY came out, and I signed the second book I ever signed to her – actually it was a galley. I wonder if she noticed how much I was shaking as I handed it over. I'm not sure I was coherent while we spoke, and when I walked away I burst into tears. (I must say that I was proud of myself for not crying in front of her.) I met Ann M. Martin a few months ago. She was my hero for writing The Baby-Sitters Club series. In elementary school, my favorite time of every month was when one of those books was released. Then I would read it immediately and hate having to wait another 30 days for my next fix. Ms. Martin actually blurbed POSITIVELY, which is one of the most surreal things that has happened to me since I got into this business.
I discovered Wendy Mass' books and Lauren Myracle's books more recently – I admire them both tremendously. They are also two of the nicest people you could ever meet and I am proud to call them my friends.
What do you hope readers take away from your novels?
I don't want my books to be preachy, so I'm really not out to teach any lessons. I just hope readers can identify with my characters and empathize with their situations. And I hope, when they finish the books, they feel like the time they spent reading was worthwhile.
Let's wrap this up with something odd and fun: You and I both love cheese. (I'm vegetarian, but cheese is one of the reasons I'm not vegan!) What are your favorite types of cheese?
I'm so simple – I really love cheddar, and mozzarella, and Monterey jack. The fancy cheeses are too fancy for me...although I have one friend who always buys this pepper cheese when we have book club – I call it "sinus cheese" because it's spicy and clears your sinuses. I don't know what it's actually called, but I really love it.
Drop by Courtney's website and blog.
Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Courtney Sheinmel (2008)
Family: Courtney Sheinmel
Hope: Courtney Sheinmel
Book Review: My So-Called Family 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
Visit all of today's tour stops:
Jim Ottaviani at Chasing Ray
Courtney Sheinmel at Bildungsroman
Derek Landy at Finding Wonderland
Mary E. Pearson at Miss Erin
Megan Whalen Turner at HipWriterMama
Frances Hardinge at Fuse #8
Here's the Bildungsroman schedule for WBBT 2009:
Monday, November 16th: Courtney Sheinmel
Tuesday, November 17th: Laurie Faria Stolarz
Wednesday, November 18th: Jacqui Robbins
Thursday, November 19th: Thomas Randall
Friday, November 20th: Joan Holub
View the full schedule for WBBT 2009.