In Daphne Grab's debut novel, Alive and Well in Prague, New York, teenage Matisse feels like a city mouse forced into the life of a country mouse - so, naturally, the first question I asked the author was:
Are you a city mouse or a country mouse?
I grew up in the country but I am all city! The country is wonderful and I love to visit, but, like Matisse, I need bustle and noise around me, and concrete under my feet.
As a matter of fact one of my scariest (and most humiliating) childhood moments was getting chased by a goose. I was walking past a farm and there were a couple of geese milling about that seemed perfectly harmless. But apparently one of them didn't like the look of me because he came after me, hissing and beating his wings, his beak jutted out like a sword. And he got the job done: I ran out of there as fast as I could and never went back.
Your main character is the child of artists - her mother is a painter and her father a sculptor - and named accordingly. Why did you select Matisse - that name, that artist? Do you have a favorite Matisse work or other favorite artists?
When I first thought of the character I wanted her to be named after an artist. Van Gogh is my favorite artist but it just didn't seem like a name any parent would give their kid that name so I chose Matisse.
What made you include Parkinson's disease in your story?
My dad died of ALS (Lou Gerhig's Disease) and the experience of his illness was a powerful, hugely painful and life changing experience for me. I wanted to write about a character dealing not only with the impending death of a parent but also the physical deterioration that comes with certain illnesses because it's such a unique and challenging thing. I chose PD because it has similarities to ALS (both are neurological illnesses) but is different enough that the story would be Matisse's story, not my own story.
How has your background in teaching and social work helped you with your writing?
Working with teens helped me see that I still really connect with that time in my own life. I don't want to be a teen again (I am very happy in my mid-thirties and would not want to relive my experiences with math homework and terrible skin) but I somehow still connect to those feelings and thoughts. It's like some small part of me will always be a teen and I can easily tap into it when I write.
Have you ever drawn upon your observations of your students or teachers when creating your characters?
I think all my characters are manifestations of my own personality. Jennifer is my evil side, Matisse is me at my most confident, her mom is me as I imagine how I will parent my own teens. But for things like clothes or hair styles I draw from everyone around me. Matisse's fashion sense was born when I saw a group of girls on the subway with big bags of clothes from Andy's Cheapies.
Now that you have kids yourself, do you view writing about and for kids differently than you did, say, ten years ago?
I actually started this story before I was a mom and I wrote most of the first draft when we were in Kazakstan adopting our kids. I think the biggest thing for me now is not wanting to try to write their experience or to assume that just because I write teen books I know all about their lives.
After high school, you went to Columbia for a year of work exchange. Did you salsa dance while in the Andes?
There was nothing like those nights of salsa dancing! I went out almost every night and danced til the sun came up. That is one life experience I'd love to live again!
Tell us about The Longstockings.
We are eight writers who graduated from the MFA program at the New School. We are a critique group and each other's support system. as well as co-writers of a blog. I love being a Longstocking! I also want to give a shout out to the Class of 2k8 - I am a very proud class member!
Name your ten favorite books of all-time.
Oh, good question!
FIFTEEN by Beverly Cleary
FRIENDS FOR LIFE by Ellen Emerson White
TRUE BELIEVER by Virginia Euwer Wolff
DAIRY QUEEN by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger
THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
PERSUASION by Jane Austen
CUT by Patricia McCormack
WHAT MY MOTHER DOESN'T KNOW by Sonya Sones
A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT by Madeleine L'Engle