Author Interview: Norma Fox Mazer on What I Believe

What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer (Harcourt, 2005). When Victory Marnet’s dad loses his high-paying executive job, the family tries to remain hopeful. But after a while it becomes clear that no equivalent opportunity will arise. So, her mom decides they’ll sell the house and “extras” to begin again in a small, city apartment. But the adjustment is ongoing and involves continued financial tension, taking on a boarder, dad’s depression, and temptation that Vicki can’t quite pass up. A deeply felt look at downshifting economic class. Ages 10-up. Read more of my thoughts on What I Believe (Harcourt, 2005).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I wrote this story the first time more than a dozen years ago, when the country was in a recession, big lay-offs going on, downsizing, companies firing people who had worked all their lives for one corporation or in one factory. A lot of people were in shock. Families were losing not just jobs, but their homes, and often they were moving out of and away from places they’d lived in for years and years, the towns and schools that meant home to them. In a way, it was like Hurricane Katrina, except it wasn’t a natural disaster, but one human made, both, though, having the same kind of devastating effect on families. So I was thinking a lot about the impact of this kind of wrenching change on kids.

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

Timeline between spark and publication? My computer shows that I finished a first draft in February, 1995. It usually takes me anywhere from six months to, much more likely, a year to do a draft. So it’s somewhere between eleven and twelve years.

The second part of your question makes me laugh. Major events along the way? None, nada, but lots of minor events, otherwise known as revisions. I was doing draft after draft after draft, time after time after time. My editor was very patient. There was something about the story that didn’t fall into place for her, or for me. Every time I sent off another revision or draft, I’d think, Okay, this time I nailed it, and then the manuscript would come back with her notes, and I’d read the pages – and cringe, because I liked them so little.

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

Bringing the story to life is exactly what I was struggling with. I worked on this story over those nearly a dozen years, between other writing projects. It wasn’t a research thing that held me up; it wasn’t the psychology or the logistics that sent me back to it repeatedly.

You know, it’s not a complicated story, it’s not rocket science, but what was at issue was the background about the Marnets’ privileged life. I wanted to make that background real, not just tell the reader it was there, but make it felt by the reader. I wanted that solidity of house and cars and private schools as a contrast to the financially and emotionally precarious life the family leads in the aftermath of finally acknowledging that are head over heels in debt and have to let go of their material life – which they’ve been doing gradually, but still clinging to it.

The problem for me as a writer was how to invest the back story with life, with interest, with energy; that is, how to make it readable. Why was it a problem – because the consuming events of the story all place after that life is over. I was continually writing those 20 or 30 opening pages, trying different techniques, different approaches, and none of them satisfied me.

Sort of in desperation, a few years ago, I wrote an opening in which a poet comes into Vicki’s classroom and says to the kids, “You all are going to write a poem before the day is over.” So Vicki writes a rap poem about her family and how demoralized they are [of course she never says it that way], and I did other work, then sent the manuscript off once again to my editor.

Months later –it was spring of 2003-she and I had lunch together in New York City, and, almost casually, toward the end of the meal, she said, “I like that rap poem. Maybe Vicki should write some more poems.”

I was taken aback, completely surprised by the idea. It had never occurred to me, but, of course, I said I’d think about it. Very tentatively, I went back to all the stuff, the scenes I’d written and struggled with about the family before they move -all those scenes that were half dead on the page, and I found that in every scene there were always one or two lines that vibrated, that had life, that had a little shine of energy to them. I pulled those lines and began to write free verse from them, but at this point, revision eight or nine, I still planned on the book being primarily a narrative with some poetry here and there.

After a while, I sent a bunch of the poems I’d been writing off to my friend Meg Kearney, who’s a poet and who just wrote her first young adult book [which I hope everyone reads – it’s wonderful – called The Secret of Me (Persea Books, 2005) – and Meg gave me some pointers, even starred two or three of the poems. That was thrilling, and gave me a shot of confidence to keep going. Months later, I had a bunch of poems, but a hefty part of the book was still the kind of narrative I’ve always done. Two or three of my writer friends read parts of the manuscript and, somehow, that process of having others read it made me realize that the poetry was much more alive than the prose.

So, more than a year after my editor first put my feet –or my hands- on this path, I took a deep breath and decided to scuttle the whole standard narrative. I started all over again, from the beginning, and had a glorious time –at last!- writing the book the way it now feels it was meant to be.

Cynsational News & Links

E. Lockhart writes with news of Not Like I’m Jealous Or Anything: The Jealousy Book edited by Marissa Walsh (Delacorte, 2005). Features stories by Siobhan Adcock, Christian Bauman, Kristina Bauman, Marty Beckerman, Matthea Harvey, Thatcher Heldring, Susan Juby, E. Lockhart, Jaclyn Moriarty, Irina Reyn, Anneli Rufus, Dyan Sheldon, Reed Tucker, Ned Vizzini.

Melissa Stewart: Non-Fiction Inspiration by Sue Reichard from

Secrets of Success: Barbara Kanninen by Ellen Jackson. Barbara is a magazine writer who has recently transitioned to books. She’s sold an emergent reader to Seedling, a rhyming concept book to Henry Holt, and a YA anthology. She also has Ph.D. in natural resource economics.