Author Interview: Jennifer J. Stewart on Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind by Jennifer J. Stewart (Holiday House, 2004). From the catalog copy: “‘Think of it as an adventure,’ twelve-year-old Annie Ferris’s father tells her when he announces that the family will be spending the next two months in Nepal on a medical mission. But what sort of adventure is it if you have to leave behind your friends, sleep in a tent with your bratty little sister and actually be expected to eat something called yak cheese? Not an adventure Annie wants any part of. Then Annie meets Nirmala, a local girl, and she begins to get to know the real Nepal. Before long, Annie, her little sister Chelsea, and Nirmala embark on a journey, and the girls find themselves lost in a real-life obstacle course–with a snarling dog, a creaking rope bridge, and a darkening night sky. Will Annie be ready to handle the adventure she finds after all? In this warm and comic tour of self-discovery Jennifer J. Stewart gets to the heart of what it truly means to be a family.” See review excerpts and awards information. See also teacher’s guide.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

In 1999, my husband and I yanked our kids out of school and headed halfway around the world to the kingdom of Nepal. People said we were crazy, but he had always wanted to do medical volunteer work, and we realized that if we were to make it happen, we should do it before we had kids in high school, when they aren’t so easily uprooted.

We went with an organization called Helping Hands Health Education, and we worked in three villages: Khandbari, Kusma, and Bandipur. We were part of a medical team made up of American volunteers and Nepali staff. I learned on the job to be a scrub nurse (my husband is a surgeon), and, much to my surprise and his, found that if it wasn’t my vomit, blood, or pus, I could deal with it. We provided medical care and surgery using local anesthesia, without access to a lab or an operating room, only a pharmacy and a can-do attitude. (Duct tape was infinitely useful.) My husband and I shared a journal, taking turns writing in it, and our three daughters–then age ten, eight and five–also kept journals, although our youngest just drew pictures in hers.

I think I knew right from the start that the experience had the potential to become a book, so keeping a diary was my way of making it stick. I listened carefully when people told me stories. I was sure it could become a book when I found that many of our translators at the hospital were schoolchildren, and because our children worked alongside us.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

My first novel, If That Breathes Fire, We’re Toast! (Holiday House, 1999), came out while we were in Nepal (I remember the surreal experience of reading my first Kirkus review in an Internet cafe in Kathmandu; my editor had emailed it to me). After we returned to the United States, I found I wasn’t ready to write the Nepal novel. I suppose I wanted the experience to marinate in my head, to get some distance from it, so I wrote The Bean King’s Daughter (Holiday House, 2002) next. But after that, I pulled out all our journals, and I wrote the beginning of what would become Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind in 2001.

In September 2001, I took the first five pages with me and work-shopped them at an Arizona Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators working writers retreat. I was lucky enough to have Bruce Coville read those pages, and buoyed by his comments, and telling myself to quit being chicken, I mailed off three chapters in February, 2002 to my editor at Holiday House, Regina Griffin. I applied for a Work-In-Progress Grant from the SCBWI, because I very much like entering contests, especially when I win. Anyway, even though I did not include the outline the option clause in my contract required, my editor made me an offer one month later. After debating a little bit with my conscience, I withdrew the ms from the SCBWI competition, because the contract offer came four days after the grant deadline. Technically I didn’t have to withdraw the manuscript, but it felt right.

Then I had to finish the book. I had seven months to do it. I had three chapters. They were good chapters, but it’s not like I had a plot. However, I had never had a plot before, so it wasn’t that worrisome.

You see, when I write a book, it’s like I’m hopping in my car, and I’ve decided I’m going to visit Alaska. I have only a vague idea where Alaska is, and an even vaguer idea of how I’m getting there, because I don’t have a map, and why would I stop for directions? Eventually I do arrive, and although I’ve made a lot of detours, this is the way writing works for me.

Chapter by chapter, I ran it by my critique group: C.S. Adler, Patricia McCord, and Janni Lee Simner. They would tell me what was wrong with the chapter; I’d fix it, and move on. The chapters were really rough, and I give them lots of credit for keeping me going, and not complaining too much about not seeing revised chapters, which would have taken twice as long. I turned in the manuscript in September 2002.

My Queen of Editors got back to me with comments in June 2003. Mostly, I had to go deeper into my main character’s head, keeping the focus squarely on my 12-year-old narrator Annie, and not her mother (a somewhat natural tendency, as I had lived that role). I also had to remember my readers were not planning a trip to Nepal, not to be a travel guide. So it was mostly cutting, but some interweaving of more layers, to give the book more emotional depth. I rewrote and sent back the manuscript in September. I had one more minor tweaking after that.

Then, there came one final, eleventh hour revision in the galley stage. My editor said that outside readers were objecting to the climactic scene where Annie, Chelsea, and Nirmala confront a growling dog protecting its territory. Nirmala throws rocks at the dog, but my editor said that the outside expert readers were claiming that action would cause American kids to become copycats. And that when American kids threw rocks at menacing dogs, they would get bitten.

I argued that Nirmala was not an American child, and she did what a Nepali child in her situation would do, but to no avail. I had to find a way for Nirmala to run interference for Annie and her little sister without throwing rocks, and I had to do it in the 110 lines allotted for that section in the galley proofs, no more, no less, if possible. I did, and I am so proud of that scene. It’s better than the original.

The book was delayed because the cover artist gave the creature on the cover blue-eyes instead of brown. That had to be fixed. I do love the cover, though!

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind came out in November 2004. It has had lovely reviews, and I’m pleased to report it’s up for an Arizona Young Reader Award in 2007.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Usually I just make everything up when I write a book. But this book was different, more personal. It wasn’t going to work that way.

I had thousands of details in my head of Nepal, covering all five senses. In my initial draft, and even in my second one, I had the tendency to try and stuff them all in, and it made my manuscript sound like a travelogue, and a lot of that had to be cut. I also was a bit heavy on the medical stuff, and kids wouldn’t be interested in that. To bring this exotic place alive to my readers, I had to look for the telling detail, and only use one or two of those telling details per paragraph to make it real for my readers.

I did not only rely on my memory; I read every book on Nepal I could find, and I talked to everyone I could find who had been to Nepal about their experiences. I even met Sir Edmund Hillary, but he’s not in my book.

I think what scared me the most about writing this novel is that I was writing outside my culture. I had done it before with Rick Morales, the main character of If That Breathes Fire, We’re Toast!, but that felt natural because I’ve lived in southern Arizona most of my life, and Hispanic culture has been part of my upbringing.

But with Nepal, everything is different: terrain, religion, language, even the way you look at life, which appears more fatalistic to American eyes. I knew I would be crossing lots of lines, not just the racial one. Because my narrator, 12-year-old Annie, is traveling with her parents and her five-year-old sister to work as medical volunteers, I had a frame of reference from my own experience, so that’s what I started with. Annie and Chelsea befriend a Nepali girl, Nirmala, and it was Nirmala’s character that I knew would be crucial to the heart and soul of the book. If I didn’t get her right, I knew I would blow it. I did not want to do a disservice to the country and the people I had loved so much. Sometimes, when I read a book written by someone outside the culture it’s written about, it feels phony, or what’s worse, totally wrong-headed, and I did not want my book to feel fake.

The other thing that could have proved difficult was keeping the tone appropriate for my young readers. I had witnessed heartbreaking things in Nepal, but I didn’t use too much of that, except for when Annie puts her hand to a girl’s ribcage. Her heartbeat feels like a small frog trying frantically to escape, and Annie realizes that the girl will die, because there is no way she can have heart surgery. I didn’t want to get too grown-up for my readers, and I wanted it to be a funny adventure story, which it is, but it’s a whole lot more, too.

The hardest part was how to end the book. I was going to either have to leave Nirmala behind, or find a way to bring her to America for a visit. Eventually, I broke Nirmala’s arm in a way that required surgery to set it properly. With her mother’s blessing, and knowing it was her father’s wish that she continue her education to become a teacher, Nirmala leaves for America with Annie’s family. It is left open-ended as to when she will return, but I did not intend to have Annie’s family adopt her. I expected that someday they would return to the village with Nirmala.

It’s funny how your characters become so real, isn’t it?

What can your readers expect next?

I am working on another funny middle grade novel, due next May and if all goes well, that one should be out about a year later, in the summer of 2007. It is with a new publisher, one which I shall not name here, as I am still waiting for the contract to arrive. This one sold on the basis of two chapters and no outline, so I have my work cut out for me. Looks like I’m heading for Alaska again!

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind and its characters still tug at my heart, though. I would enjoy the challenge of writing a sequel, a Nirmala in America type book, and maybe I will tackle that in the future.

Cynsational News & Links

Enter to win a Lara M. Zeises Prize Pack from Young Adult Books Central. Read a recent cynsations interview with Lara on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Get ready for Children’s Book Week, Nov. 14-20! For related materials, information on celebrating, help promoting, its history and more, visit the Children’s Book Council.

DC Green Yarns: official site of award-winning and very funny children’s author, DC Green. Includes: first chapters, reviews, links. The author’s books include: Erasmus James & the Galactic ZAPP Machine.

Master Plots from Suggested on author board by Alex Flinn; suggestion passed on with permission.