New Voice: Helen Landalf on Flyaway

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Helen Landalf is the first-time novelist of Flyaway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Stevie Calhoun is used to taking care of herself. But one night, her mom, who works as an exotic dancer in a downtown Seattle nightclub, never comes home.

That’s the night Stevie’s life turns upside down.

It’s the night that kicks off an extraordinary summer: the summer Stevie has to stay with her annoyingly perfect Aunt Mindy; the summer she learns to care for injured and abandoned birds; the summer she gets to know Alan, the meanest guy in high school.

But most of all, it’s the summer she finds out the truth about Mom.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

There were a number of things I had to research in order to make Flyaway as authentic as possible. For one thing, I had to learn about the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wild birds.

Visit PAWS

Print research is never enough for me, so I decided to get some hands-on experience by volunteering to work in the Bird Nursery at my local PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society). There I learned how to feed baby birds with an eyedropper, watched the birds progress from incubator to basket to aviary, and even got to witness a rehabilitated robin’s release back into the wild.

One of the major characters in my novel grew up in foster homes, so I needed to find out how that might have affected him emotionally. For that piece of research, I turned to a co-worker’s husband, who not only grew up in the foster-care system but also now works for the Anna E. Casey Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping foster kids. I did a phone interview with him and also had him vet portions of my manuscript for authenticity.

The most difficult aspect of my novel to research was methamphetamine use; as dedicated as I am to hands-on research, I draw the line at engaging in illegal activities. Both fortunately and unfortunately, someone close to me is a former meth addict, so my portrait of Stevie’s mom is largely based on my experience with that person. I also frequented some Internet sites where users discuss methods of taking the drug, the feel of the high, etc. I even called a drug rehab center and conversed at length with an intervention specialist.

The greatest coup for me, research-wise, was being able to spend a day at Second Chance Wildlife Care Center, a wildlife rehab center based in a residential home. When I saw the teens volunteering there, completely absorbed in caring for wild birds and mammals, and when I learned that they had been placed there to fulfill a community service requirement, I knew I had found the perfect model for the bird rehab clinic in Flyaway.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

In addition to being a writer, I work as a freelance Creative Dance teacher in preschools and a Pilates instructor at Pilates Northwest in Seattle.

I love combining teaching with writing, because I get a chance to experience both my introverted and my extroverted side each day.

And even though only one of my students is a teen (my youngest dance students are two and a half; my oldest Pilates client is 85), just being in contact with so many people and listening to their stories and concerns can’t help but stimulate the idea-generating part of my brain.

Plus, with all the butt-in-chair that writing requires, I really appreciate the fact that movement is a major part of my day job.

Add to that the fact that my work in Creative Dance has spawned five nonfiction books for teachers, and you’ll understand why, for me, teaching and writing are a match made in heaven.

Cynsational Notes

Helen is previously published in the picture book and adult nonfiction; however, the fact that this is her first YA novel makes her a “new voice” for our purposes at Cynsations.