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Interview: Cheryl Renee Herbsman

Cheryl Renee Herbsman's debut novel, Breathing, introduces readers to Savannah, a very likable protagonist whose severe asthma sometimes impedes her. One remarkable summer is punctuated by Savannah's work at the local library, her worries about her younger brother and her father, who left years ago, and the appearance (and later reappearances) of an artistic older boy named Jackson. Thanks to her hardworking mother, her developing awareness of the world beyond her sleepy town, and now this sweet boy, Savannah discovers her own strength. This summer story will sweep readers away and make them wish for simpler times.

Much like Savannah, author Cheryl Renee Herbsman started dating an older boy when she was a teenager. That boy would later become her husband. Just how much of Breathing is based on the author's own experiences? Keep reading to find out!

Do you share any personality traits with your protagonist, Savannah - or her asthma - or did the similarities stop with the premise of the long-distance relationship? How much fact got mixed into this fiction?

Like Savannah, I am a hopeFUL romantic and a dreamer. When I set my mind to a dream, I get tenacious the way she did with getting that job for Jackson. I also share with her a love of books, the beach, lazy summer days, and true love. I don't have asthma myself, but I've worked with hospitalized kids with a variety of illnesses, including asthma. My husband and daughter both have mild asthma, but fortunately nowhere near as intense as Savannah's. Another true life aspect of the story is the way Savannah and Jackson support each other's dreams. I feel so lucky to be married to my best friend, someone who always holds the dream for me, just as I hold it for him.

How did your childhood form the person you are now, and how did it inform your writing?

Growing up, I was the middle child of five kids. I was very sensitive and shy. My room was my safe haven, where I could escape the chaos of noise and commotion that comes with a large family. I think being sensitive makes one more attuned to people's feelings and what's going on for them. So when I write, I use that ability to tune into what's going on for someone else.

Even back then, I was a total dreamer. And although they may have thought I was a little crazy, my parents always allowed that in me. They let me believe in and pursue my dreams. I think it makes a huge difference to have someone in your life make that okay. When I set out to write and publish a novel, it helped that I'd gone after dreams before and even made them come true.

Like Savannah, I was raised by a single mother who worked hard to make ends meet and take care of her two children. Like Savannah, I knew that some programs or things I'd love to do were too expensive for us, so I didn't pursue them. Did you base the Program for Promising High School Students on any real program for teens in the Carolinas?

I wish I could tell you there really is a program like that in Asheville, but that came from my imagination. I used to go to a summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which I loved. So that became Savannah's dream, to one day get to see those mountains.

I loved the fact that Savannah worked at the local public library and had an appreciation for books. What is your favorite part of the act of reading? What makes books so special to you?

I love the way books can sweep you away into another world. I get so caught up in it. I can't stand to put a good book down. And then I'm always sad when books end because if the author has created a world I love, I never want to let it go. As a kid, books were my escape to worlds of adventure or bravery or excitement. They let me imagine myself someone else for a while. But I think my favorite thing about books is the subtle way they can open your eyes to new ways of thinking.

At your website, you shared character sketches you'd written for the main characters in Breathing. Do you always (or often) write such sketches? Do you have any writing routines or rituals?

I do try to do character sketches as I'm getting to know them better. It brings them alive to me in a deeper way. I usually write when my kids are at school. I light candles and incense to transport me out of the mundane world and then just listen and see what comes. I'm not the kind of writer who can work in a busy café. I need silence and solitude to get the writing to flow.

Do your kids and husband read your works-in-progress?

Always!! They even offer helpful feedback.

Are you plotting out another story now?

I'm not a plotter, but I am working on another story. It takes place at a summer camp like the one I went to in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What was your favorite part of living in the South? And now, living on the West Coast?

I love the friendliness of the South and the progressive nature of the west. And they are both naturally beautiful.

What are your top ten favorite books?

Ugh! I don't know if I can answer this one. It's too hard to choose! I'll tell you the books I've re-read the most:

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho
Love Walked In by Maria de los Santos
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Anne Brashares
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
One by Richard Bach
Calvin and Hobbes collections
The White Mountains Trilogy by John Christopher (similar to the Uglies
series by Scott Westerfield)

And for #10, I'm going to cheat and name a couple of authors whose books I
love: Laurie Halse Anderson and Jodi Piccoult, and I also have to say there
are an amazing number of debut novels coming out from the 2009 Debs and the Class of 2k9.

Visit Cheryl's website.
Tags: 2009 debutantes, books, class of 2k9, interviews, reviews
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