Author Interview: Shana Burg on A Thousand Never Evers

A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg (Delacorte, 2008)(Listening Library, 2008). From the flap copy: “In Kuckachoo, Mississippi, in 1963, Addie Ann Pickett happily swings in her yard, jumps double Dutch and teaches her trusty cat Flapjack new tricks. But then a good deed meant to unite the citizens of Kuckachoo sets off a chain of explosive events. Soon Addie Ann’s older brother is missing and her beloved uncle is accused of a crime. Now Addie Ann must decide whether to be a bystander or someone prepared to take action, no matter what the consequence.” Read chapter one.

Note: Shana has a substantive new, must-read blog. Check out her latest entry, Who Admits to Race Bias?

What made you decide to write books for young readers?

I loved so many of the books when I taught sixth grade. The spring of my first year teaching, I taught a unit called Element of Fiction, about character, plot, theme, conflict, etc., and each night I assigned my students homework that led them to develop their own creative stories.

One day, in the midst of teaching this unit, I took my students to hear David Almond speak. I think he’s an incredible writer, and after hearing him talk, I was truly inspired.

That afternoon I went home and began doing my own homework assignments along with my students. That was the day I started writing my first book, A Thousand Never Evers.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Well, about four years into writing my book, I went to an SCBWI conference. The presenter said,”The worst mistake you can make is to submit your manuscript before it’s ready.”

For many people, I guess that would be good advice. But when you say that to someone who’s a bit of a perfectionist at heart, it’s really not good. I waited another two years after that to send it out, so by the time I did, it was in pretty good shape. I got an agent quickly.

My agent, Andrea Cascardi, is a former editor. I’m so lucky I found her. She really helped me revise and polish. She sent the book out a few times, and it came back with long letters from devoted editors cheering me on with lengthy, detailed suggestions for revision. When that happened, I knew I was getting very close.

I kept revising, and then finally, finally, it seemed I got it right, because several editors were interested in buying it. I went with Michelle Poploff from Delacorte Press. Not only had I heard that Michelle’s an excellent editor, but also I had insider information that she’s a gem of a human being. This turned out to be completely true on both counts.

Congratulations on the release of A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008)! Could you tell us a little more about this new title?

Why thank you very much! Well, A Thousand Never Evers is set in small town, Mississippi Delta in 1963. It tells the story of Addie Ann Pickett, a 12-year-old African American girl whose uncle is falsely accused of a crime. In response, Addie Ann launches a civil rights movement of her own. The book is for grades five-up, and themes include racism and prejudice, truth and loyalty, courage, family, and community.

Also, I’m so excited that Listening Library is publishing the unabridged audio CD. Kenya Brome, the actress, does an amazing job interpreting the text [listen].

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

A couple things. First of all, I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. My parents had moved there from New York so my father could work as a lawyer in the civil rights movement. I was still a baby when we moved to Massachusetts, but I grew up very curious about this chapter in my family’s life. And I always heard stories about the injustices that had occurred.

Also, I had a job working on a Mississippi Delta community nutrition project. I was based in Boston, but I had the chance to visit the Delta a couple times, and I spoke regularly on the phone with people who lived there.

When I first visited, I was stunned to see the poverty I had experienced in developing countries existing right here in the United States. Also, I was surprised to see that in many places there are still basically two sides of town, the rich white side and the poorer African-American side.

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

It was a long haul. I was writing after school and in the summers. And I had a baby in there and found “American Idol,” addictive time-sucker, so it was eight years! I sold the book after five years of working on it.

I would say a major event along the way was the revision letter I got from my editor, Michelle. It was eight pages single-spaced. This really freaked me out!

First of all, I had never heard anything about revision letters, and I thought I was the only author to ever get one. Only when I heard Louis Sachar speak at an [Austin] SCBWI meeting and I asked him about this strange and disturbing letter I had received, did I find out that he actually got such letters too. That was a huge relief!

Anyway, I happened to be in New York the month after I got the letter, so I met with Michelle and her editorial assistants to discuss it before I attempted the revision.

After that meeting, I really felt like I was on fire. I spent four months revising and then a couple more months answering hundreds of small queries. Then at last, it was ready for copyediting.

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

As far as research, it came to the point where I felt like I couldn’t write a single paragraph without spinning off into days if not weeks of research.

When it came to understanding the details of gardening, I studied it for a year. I thought I might lose it. I had all these wonderful Mississippi farmers advising me on when it’s okay to plant cabbage and corn, how many days each would take until harvest, how to plant the seeds or transplants. The problem was that I was getting contradictory information. That’s when I finally realized that gardening is as much an art as a science.

Another big challenge was trying to capture the diction correctly for the time and place. I studied the language patterns in other works of Southern fiction, and I tried to develop my ear by constantly talking on the phone to people in Mississippi as I wrote.

How did you approach writing cross-culturally?

For the first four years of working on the book, I never thought, “Wow, I’m writing cross-culturally.” I just told the story of this little girl who had planted herself my imagination.

It wasn’t until I went to a workshop at Wildacres in North Carolina that people said, “Oh, that’s really ambitious.” And my critique group discussed whether it was okay for me, a white writer, to write this.

But I had a story to tell. I’d taught many African American girls, lived with an African Caribbean family for a summer, worked with African Americans from Mississippi, so in the end, I was developing characters from a mix of research and my own experience.

How do you balance the creative side of being a writer with the responsibilities (promotion, negotiation, etc.) of being an author?

This is a struggle, because I really want to be doing both all the time. For me, writing requires real quiet, focus, and long stretches of time, especially at the beginning of a project.

On the other hand, promotion seems to tap into just the opposite kind of energy, the more extroverted, gregarious side. I can’t seem to flip from one to the other in the same day or even week. Right now, my solution is to block out my schedule and say, “This is a writing week.” And then “That is a promotion week.”

You have some fantastic tie-in features on your website! Could you tell us about them?

I’m so glad you asked!

Well, there were many fascinating people I interviewed and met in the course of researching this book, so I’ve included interviews with them on the site.

For example, my character Delilah is African American and wants to be a model. I had to do a lot of research to find out if this was even a possibility for a girl like her in 1963, so I turned to an expert in the black modeling industry of the 1950s and 1960s for help.

My interview with Dr. Laila Haiderali appears on the site. I really hope that teachers and librarians will share these interviews and the related excerpts with young readers, so kids can get a behind-the-scenes look at how historical fiction comes to life.

Do you share your early writing with a critique group, critique partner, or only your editor/agent? Why does this approach work for you?

When I was teaching, I got a small grant to hire my former students to critique my first draft. We met four times during the summer at a pizza place. I paid for the pizza and then kept my mouth shut as they discussed what they’d read.

I know what people always say about not asking your children or students to evaluate your work. But I found this process completely enlightening. Looking back, their criticism was right on the money.

I do point out, however, these kids were my former students, and I clearly told them I wanted their honest opinions, so I don’t think there was too much of the need to please. They got free pizza and a small stipend for their work, and I got a huge homework assignment from them—a revision that took years to complete. So they certainly got me back for any misery I’d put them through when they were my students!

Are you interested in visiting schools, public libraries, and other venues? What sorts of programs do you offer? How can planners get in touch with you?

I love visiting classrooms and speaking to young readers in other venues. I offer a variety of workshops on everything from how A Thousand Never Evers grew from seed to story, to the art of revision, and the role of young people in the civil rights movement. Planners can read more about my workshops on the Educator page of my website, and they can schedule visits by contacting me at [note: Shana is based in the Austin area].

What can your readers look forward to next?

Another middle grade fiction that deals with a critical social issue of our time.

Cynsational Notes

The Association of Booksellers for Children has selected A Thousand Never Evers as one of its New Voices Picks for spring 2008.

The book also has received a 2008 Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award and a starred review from Publishers Weekly.