Author Interview: Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street

A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005). Zoe, 17, has had it with her alcoholic mother and manipulative grandmother. She moves out of the house and rents a room on Lorelei Street in hopes of a new start. But ghosts, living and dead, swirl around Zoe, trying to tug her back, and it’s hard making ends meet as a diner waitress. Zoe’s new landlady, Opal, has a fresh, hopeful perspective, but ultimately, Zoe’s uncertain future rests in her own hands. Ages 12-up. Highly recommended. (See more of my thoughts on this novel).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

A book takes a long time to write, often years, so along the way a lot of inspirations intervene and help the story unfold, but first and foremost I heard the opening lines and got a sense of a character with heavy weight pressing down on her. From there I just listened.

I didn’t realize it as I was writing it, but looking back I can see that A Room on Lorelei Street is clearly a survival story. I had written a story about a girl who was being hit from all sides, over and over again, and you have to wonder if she will make it.

This story began on the heels of a rough period of my life. A serious illness in my family had brought my world to a grinding halt. For months I couldn’t write, but then when it finally seemed that things were going to be okay and I decided it was time to begin writing again, I had a new found sense of writing the truth at all costs.

I began A Room on Lorelei Street, wanting to explore life’s inequities and also the incredible iron bonds of family. But then during the course of writing the book, another dark veil fell, my mother was diagnosed as terminal and I had to set my story aside again as I cared for her in her last few months of life.

When I returned to the story, I was basically shell-shocked, much as Zoe was at that point of the story. What else could happen?

I think at that point, I decided Zoe had to make it–I needed her to make it–but honestly, I still wasn’t sure she would. This was not a story I planned; this was a story where I listened page by page and I came to know Zoe as well as I know anyone. Usually when you think of survival stories you think of wilderness stories, or medical stories, but there is a “falling through the cracks” kind of survival that happens everyday right beneath our noses, but gets little fanfare. Zoe’s story is such a survival story.

Other little inspirations also rubbed up against each other to make A Room on Lorelei Street happen . . .

As a small child I always passed a street on my way to school called “Lorelei Street.” I thought the name was so pretty–much prettier than my own “Bellflower”–and I always imagined what it would be like to live on Lorelei Street.

I am fascinated with names and what they mean. I came across “Zoe” and its meaning, “full of life,” and I imagined a character and why someone might name her that and what she might have to live up to. The name gave me a lot of insights into the father of the story, even though he isn’t actually even in the book.

In a similar vein, after I had begun writing A Room on Lorelei Street, I realized I didn’t know what “Lorelei”* meant so I looked it up. It was one of those goose bump writerly moments. The meaning hints of seduction and ruin–exactly what it would become for Zoe. It seemed like fate that I would choose that name.

As a writer I really enjoy exploring gray areas–right and wrong is often a matter of time and perspective. In A Room on Lorelei Street, we see many flawed characters, perhaps each with a similar goal, but with very different ways of achieving it. Most notably, Zoe and her grandmother seem at complete odds, and yet they both love Mama, and want the family to “survive,” but in different ways.

The story of course, is from Zoe’s perspective, but a few times I open a window where the reader can see the struggling or tender side of the grandmother too. Even the “sleazebag” has his own story, and Zoe at one point reflects on this, that he only wants to be “acknowledged.” The world is not black and white, so A Room on Lorelei Street gave me a lot of opportunities to explore the volume of the world’s gray.

I am amazed at the iron bonds of family. No matter how difficult or awful someone can be, when they are “blood” we never can quite cut the ties that hold us together. Family is always family. In A Room on Lorelei Street, Zoe had to learn how to reconcile this loyalty with the need for her own survival.

Becoming a parent means putting all of your needs, wants, and indulgences, in a backseat to your children’s. At least that is what I believe. Kids only get one chance to be kids. And yet from time to time, I have seen parents who refuse to grow up, accept responsibility, and they fritter away their own child’s precious growing up years. Because the parent refuses to grow up, they make their own child grow up too soon. It angers me, and I wanted to explore that in A Room on Lorelei Street. Similarly, I have seen parents who find their children to be an amusing hobby, but once the novelty wears off, the kids are on their own. That angers me, too. A little bit of outrage is always good fuel for a book.

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

Ha! Well, I think I already mentioned the major events. I wrote the first opening lines in December of 2000 and finished the rough draft in July of 2002. Of course, then it went out for critiques with my friends and the many revisions began. It was a long process, needless to say.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

My challenges were very much like any writer’s challenges. To keep going for one thing. There were lots of times I thought about quitting. Writing is hard work. There are no guarantees. No road map. And at times–especially in the middle–you feel utterly lost. The challenge is to keep going, even when you aren’t sure of the way.

E.B White said that “Writing itself is an act of faith, and nothing else” and that pretty much says it all. You keep writing because you believe in something. It’s a gauzy intangible drive that whispers to you, keep going, and you do in spite of your doubts and fears. And when you finally have a completed novel, it feels like nothing less than a miracle.

More On A Room On Lorelei Street

Visit Mary E. Pearson’s blog, her Web site page on A Room On Lorelei Street (with prepublication chatter, award nominations, etc.), and check out the teacher’s guide for the novel from Henry Holt (guide is PDF file). More Cynsational thoughts on A Room On Lorelei Street.

More Recent Interviews

Vivian Vande Velde on Companions of the Night (Harcourt, 1995) and Being Dead (Harcourt, 2001); Laura Ruby on Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003); Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Ladybird’s Flowers: How A First Lady Changed America; Elisa Carbone on Last Dance On Holladay Street (Knopf, 2005); Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003); and Holly Black on Tithe: A Modern Faeire Tale (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Cynsational News & Links

Authors and Animals are a Winning Team by Francine Silverman from OnceWritten.com: The Source for New and Emerging Authors. See more articles from the site on promotion, publication, tax deductions, queries, niches and more.

Kindling Words 2006 will be Jan. 26 to 29. Note: “Kindling Words is a gathering for published authors, illustrators, and working editors and agents in the field of children’s books. To register, your publishing house must be recognized by the Children’s Book Council.” At the very least check out the gorgeous new KW Web site, designed by author/illustrator Janie Bynum.

Remember yesterday when I was talking about the auction at Brenda Novak’s site so you could bid on Niki Burnham‘s books? One of the items available for bid (today only!) is a reading of a children’s manuscript by editor Arthur Levine of Scholastic. Read a conversation with Arthur Levine from The Purple Crayon. Visit Arthur A. Levine Books.

Check out some Austin talents: illustrator Theresa Bayer, illustator Laura Logan, and author Janet Kaderli. Tell ’em Cyn sent you!

Bid on Books by Niki Burnham

YA romance author Niki Burnham (who also also writes for adults as Nicole Burnham) announces that autographed copies of her (grown-up) San Rimi series, featuring the diTalora family, and her debut YA novel, Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004), are available for bids at Brenda Novak’s site. Brenda is hosting an online auction, with 100% of proceeds going to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. See the “gift baskets” category by tomorrow, May 31.

note: Nic and I went to The University of Michigan Law School together where we were great pals, and we later stood up in each other’s weddings. I’m so thrilled about all of her success!

Memorial Day

The Bug Cemetery by Frances Hill, illustrated by Vera Rosenberry (Henry Holt, 2002) is possibly the best cycle-of-life picture book for young readers, ages 4-up. Highly recommended.

Greg and I are still entertaining guests here. Today, we’re heading to Zilker Botanical Garden.

Cynsational Links

“If Things Look Bad, Don’t Fret. Take Action.” by Steve Young, guest columnist for the L.A. Daily News. Not about writing per se but rather weathering storms. See Steve’s blog.

“Rating Your Rejections (Or What The Heck Did That Editor Mean?)” by Linda Joy Singleton from author Verla Kay’s Web site. See Linda Joy’s blog.

notes: (1) Steve, Linda Joy, and Verla all are members of the childrens-writers list at yahoogroups.com; (2) Frances is married to Brian Yansky, YA author of My Road Trip To The Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket Books, 2003). They live in Austin with a sweet dog named “Max” and a cranky kitty aptly named “Chaos.”

Memorial Day Weekend: Books About Grief and Healing

This Memorial Day weekend, I’m remembering my dad, my uncle Gary, my grandpa Clifford,* my great aunts Nannie and Mary and Etta, my great grandma Bessie, my step-grandpa Herb, my grandpa Ray, my great-grandpa Red (Ernest), and my great uncle Dutch.

Grief/healing books that I recommend include: The Color of Absence: 12 Stories About Loss and Hope edited by James Howe (Atheneum, 2001) and This Book Is For All Kids, But Especially My Sister Libby. Libby Died. by Jack Simon, illustrated by Annette Simon (Idea University Press, 2000)(link includes interview with Annette).

I’ve written a grief/healing book myself, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), which has generated a lot of email from ‘tween girls who’ve lost a friend. I’m honored that they found some comfort in Rain’s story.

*Grampa Clifford has a walk on in my short story “The Naked Truth,” from In My Grandmother’s House: Award-Winning Authors Tell Stories About The Grandmothers, edited and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (HarperCollins, 2003).

Cynsational News & Links

2005 Texas Book Festival Author List Released from Austin360.com. Note, though, the subhead “confirmed at this time.” I’m not recognizing any children’s/YA author/illustrator names, so unless our section of the program has been cut (which I doubt), that announcement is still forthcoming.

Pannell Winners Announced

BookPeople in my current hometown of Austin, Texas and Reading Reptile Books and Toys for Young Mammals in my original hometown of Kansas City are winners of the Lucile Micheels Pannell Award for Excellent in Children’s Bookselling, given by the Women’s National Book Association.

Congratulations to Austin’s Jill Bailey,* who today is celebrating her last day at BookPeople! She will be missed at the store but still a vibrant part of Austin’s sparkling children’s/YA literature scene.

(Because I can’t help bragging, I also remind cynsational readers that BookPeople was just named the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year for 2005).

*Jill is the third Austinite to win this award, following Anne Bustard (formerly of Toad Hall; now author of Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005) and Tiffany Durham (also formerly of Toad Hall).

Cynsational News & Links

Promote Your Books Like A Pro and Create A Bestseller: a resource Web site whose title neatly explains its purpose.

In Margot’s Writing Chat for All Seasons, see: Writing Query Letters That Work; Lousy Rejection Letters; and the complete text from published authors in Margot’s May Musings on The Secret to Becoming A Published Writer (including my own contribution).

Thanks to Colorado librarian Melissa Depper, I have massively updated my listing of U.S. and Canadian regional and national awards for children’s/YA books. The URL may change with the site redesign, but I’ll keep you posted on that.

Role Models; Chat With Gordon Korman

I’m big on role models.

I have the obvious ones of course: Wonder Woman, Batgirl/Oracle, Eartha Kitt, Rupert Giles, my great aunt Anne (to whom I dedicated Jingle Dancer).

But I also always have a couple in this writing life. I find it helps me to know there’s a specific real person out there. Author Nancy Werlin is my current “art/publishing” role model because of the consistent quality of her work and the professionalism with which she conducts herself. Author Laurie Halse Anderson is my “whole person” role model, also because of the consistent quality of her work/pro behavior, along with how happy she seems (from what I can bleam (blog+gleam) from her LJ).

Last night, I stopped by the chat with Gordon Korman, author of Son Of The Mob and No More Dead Dogs, hosted by Debby Garfinkle at the YA Authors Cafe. She asked him a myriad of questions about writing and about writing humor in particular. I’ll be sure to post a link to the chat transcript when it becomes available. If you’ve never been to one of these chats before, make the effort. They’re inspirational, informative, and a lot of fun!

Cynsational News & Links

Gordon Korman Teacher Resource File from the Internet School Library Media Center.

Why Couldn’t Snow White Have Been Chinese? Finding Identity Through Children’s Books by Grace Lin from papertigers.org.

In response to my post yesterday on how Writers Must Read, Debbi Michiko Florence sent the URL to her 2005 reading list.

For those of you on LJ, illustrator Don Tate asked me about writing characters different from myself in response to my Fan Mail post. For those interested in writing crossculturally, crossorientation, crosswhatever, see the comments section (scroll to read).

Check out the recommendation for Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler on Liz B’s blog, A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy (May 20 post).

Also you must read the 2005 winning entries for the Letters about Literature contest sponsored by the California Center for the Book. Selected books include: The Truth about Sparrows; The Secret Garden; The Tale of Desperaux; Ella Enchanted; Number The Stars; Because of Winn-Dixie; Holes; Bridge to Terabithia; and Dreamland. If I had written such a letter at that age, I would’ve chosen The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spear.

Writers Must Read

I have no idea how anyone who isn’t well read expects to write well.

Reading counts as writing time. It is also the best, most painless way to improve your craft.

From now on, I’m going to start opening conversations with beginners with “what children’s/YA books have you read lately?” I’m going to work the question more into speeches, too.

Thinking about it, the major writing publications, workshops, etc. don’t sufficiently center on reading either. Hm.

You know which author does a particularly great job of talking about reading?

Linda Sue Park, and she’s doing quite well these day.

Another one?

Esmé Raji Codell, and she has a whole planet named after her.

Okay, practicing what I preach: What children’s/YA books have you read lately?

So far this year, I’ve read (and recommended):*

Young Adult: Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005); Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005); Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Cinco Puntos Press, 2004); Out Of Order by A.M. Jenkins (HarperTempest, 2003); See You Down The Road by Kim Ablon Whitney (Knopf, 2004); Comfort by Carolee Dean (Houghton Mifflin, 2002); A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005); Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young And Latino in the United States edited by Lori M. Carlson, introduction by Oscar Hijuelos (Henry Holt, 2005); The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, ruby oliver) by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2005)(Listening Library, 2005); Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005); Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobsen (Atheneum, 2005); Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorian Cirrone (HarperCollins, 2005); Rainbow Road by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2005); Over and Over You by Amy McAuley (Roaring Brook, 2005); Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories For Today, edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005); Don’t Die, Dragonfly by Linda Joy Singleton (Llewellyn, 2004).

Tweener: Last Dance On Holladay Street by Elisa Carbone (Knopf, 2005)(see author interview); Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee (Wendy Lamb Books, 2005); Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly (David Fickling, 2004).

Middle Grade: Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, 2005); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005); Sketches From A Spy Tree by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005).

Picture Books: The Good Rainbow Road/Rawa ‘Kashtyaa’tsi Hiyaani by Simon J. Ortiz, illustrated by Michael Lacapa (The University of Arizona Press, 2004), Buddy: The Story Of Buddy Holly by Anne Bustard (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(link features interview with author); Hotel Deep: Light Verse From Dark Water by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2005); Searching For Oliver K. Woodman by Darcy Pattison, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Harcourt, 2005); Looking For Uncle Louie On The Fourth Of July by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Pablo Torrecilla (Boyds Mills Press, 2005); Night Wonders by Jane Peddicord (Charlesbridge, 2005); Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005)(link features interview with author and illustrator); Once Upon A Cool Motorcycle Dude written and illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, illustrated by Carol Heyer, illustrated by Scott Goto (Walker, 2005); Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Walker, 2005).

Resource Books: Bringing Mysteries Alive for Children and Young Adults by Jeanette Larson (Linworth, 2004).

Additional Interviews: Holly Black on Tithe: A Modern Faeire Tale (Simon & Schuster, 2002); Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003); Laura Ruby on Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003); Vivian Vande Velde on Being Dead (Harcourt, 2001) and Companions of the Night (Harcourt, 1995).

*books that I read and recommend comprise about 1/10 of the total books I read. This year I’ve read about 10 times as many books as are listed above.

Cynsational News & Links

Speaking of Newbery winner Linda Sue Park, her new books are a contemporary middle grade novel, Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005)(read Greg’s blog about this novel), and a picture book, What Does Bunny See? (Clarion, 2005). And speaking of Madame Esmé, her latest are Diary of a Fairy Godmother (Hyperion, 2005) and Sing A Song of Tuna Fish (Hyperion, 2004).

Reinventing the World One Reader At A Time: An Interview with Author/Advocate Esmé Raji Codell by Deborah Wiles from BookPage (June 2003).

Linda Sue Park: Teacher Resource File from the Internet School Library Media Center.

I’m blogging lately on spookycyn about the “Desperate Housewives” season finale, complete with its (allegedly) children’s book illustrator character.

Rainbow Road by Alex Sanchez

Rainbow Road by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2005). It’s the summer before college and Jason, who made national news when he came out to his coach and basketball team, has been asked to travel across the country to speak at the opening of a high school for gay and lesbian teens in Los Angeles. Jason’s boyfriend, Kyle, and Kyle’s best friend, Nelson, decide to come along for the ride on a road trip that will lead them to new people, new experiences, and most of all, themselves. Funny, touching, illuminating, romantic, and thoughtful. Despite its depth, a quick read perfect for summer. Ages 12-up. Don’t miss companion novels Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High.

More on Rainbow Road

Rainbow Road reminds me of those old on-the-road movies and other traveling YA books like My Road Trip To The Pretty Girl Capital of the World by Brian Yansky (Cricket, 2003).

Actually, in both My Road Trip and Rainbow Road, the characters spend time here in Austin, which is fun for me and both offer an illuminating look at the city. Brian lives here, Alex used to, and they spoke together at the last Texas Book Festival. (In the interests of full disclosure and restaurant recommendations, I should probably mention that we all went out for barbecue at Hoover’s Cooking, which is near East, afterward).

For those who are fans of the Rainbow books, I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that I was thrilled with Nelson’s character arc in this last installment.

See also an author profile of Alex from Teenreads.com; Wordsmith: Alex Sanchez, author of young adult fiction by Ove Overmyer from The Empty Closet (December, 2004); An Interview With Alex Sanchez, author of Rainbow Boys, from ALAN review. Another interview with Alex is available on CLSCLR; because the site is under redesign, use the search engine.

Cynsational News & Links

Summer Reading Extravaganza: Fifty summer-themed titles, beach reads, and other books for vacation reading from CBC member publishers.

Do As I Do: Teachers Who Read Children’s Books by June Locke from Book Links. Includes suggestions for teachers and librarians. A PDF file. See also Affirming African American Boys by KaaVonia Hinton, also a PDF file from Book Links.

Author Gail Giles blogs lately about Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005)(see my own comments) and A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005)(see my own comments). Speaking of D.L. Garfinkle, a new (May 2005) interview with her has been posted at Young Adult Books Central.

Happy 40th birthday to Debbi Michiko Florence, and thanks to Debbi for her Random Act of Kindness!

Tofu and T.Rex : Author Copies Arrive

Congratulations to my very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, whose author copies of his second novel, Tofu and T.Rex (Little Brown, 2005) arrived yesterday.

The novel is a companion book to his award-winning debut, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003)(Recorded Books, 2004), and will be available for sale in July.

We had been told that the colors on the ARC wouldn’t quite reflect those on the novel, and we’re so pleased with the final results. That raised, glossy T.Rex really pops!

Read Interview With Debut Children’s Novelist Greg Leitich Smith by Debbi Michiko Florence (updated November 2004); Author Interviews: Greg Leitich Smith from Downhome Books (October 2003); The Story Behind The Story: Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo from CLSCLR; and Profile of Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith by Dianna Hutts Aston.

I also was pleased to receive my ARC of Rainbow Road by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2005). It’s the third book in the Rainbow trilogy, which included Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High. Alex lived in Austin as a child, and he spoke on a panel and TLA with Greg and me.

Cynsational News & Links

The NE/NC Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators presents its fall conference, “The Adventure Awaits,” Sept. 24 at the Hilton Arlington in Arlington, Texas. Featured speakers include: Suzanne Nelson, Senior Editor, Scholastic Book Club Division; Catherine Frank, Editor, Viking; Robert Mayes, Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux; Patrick Collins, Creative Director, Henry Holt; Dian Curtis Regan, Keynote Speaker, author of many award-winning books for children including Ghost Twins, Monster of the Month Club, Chance, The Initiation, and Princess Nevermore. Note: Dian is one of my fave people in children’s publishing, and Chance (Philomel, 2003) is one of my fave picture books. She (relatively) recently moved to one of my home states, Kansas.

“Critique Groups: From Water Wings to the High Dive” by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, in the Publishing Paths section of Writer’s Support from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also the May 12 transcript of “Anything Goes, But What Does a Banned-Book Author Do Next?” an archived ICL chat with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

Check out the Children’s Literature Choice List for 2005.