Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2004)(read excerpt). Thirteen-year-old Steven’s life is all about playing drums for the All-Star Jazz Band, worshipping queen bee Renee Albert, and enduring the annoying attentions of his baby brother Jeffrey. But then Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia, and everything changes–the family routine, family finances, parent-son relationships, even Steven’s popularity at school. Funny and touching, this tremendous debut novel is a story of life and death, loves lost and found, and an affecting inner journey. It doesn’t miss a beat. Ages 10-up. CYALR HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?
I teach 8th grade English in New Jersey. One of my students had a younger brother who was being treated for cancer. I wrote this book because when I went to find a book that would help my student to deal with her family’s crisis, I couldn’t find one.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
I wrote the novel very quickly: two weeks of research and ten weeks of frantic word processing. For those twelve weeks, life was a whirl of teaching all day, parenting all evening, and then writing from the time the kids went to bed until I finally collapsed into bed myself.
I finished the book in April of 2003, and signed the original publishing contract on July 1 of that year — so the path to publication looked rosy.
Then my first publisher, a lovely small literary press called DayBue Publishing, went out of business in June 2004, just three weeks after they released Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie in hardcover.
Thankfully, the book was nominated for BBYA and selected as a Fall 2004 BookSense pick within days of my publisher’s closing, so I was able to turn around very quickly and negotiate a deal with Scholastic to reprint it. They also bought my second novel for young adults, which I had just finished, so things turned out better than I could have imagined.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
The research task was massive; I wanted to write about cancer realistically enough that the book would stand up to the most intense scrutiny from people who knew EVERYTHING about cancer. Fortunately, my childhood best friend is a pediatric oncologist, so he was my research guru. The literary and logistical challenges were no different from those faced by any first-time novelist with a family and a demanding day job.
The psychological part was the real kicker. When I was writing this book, I “borrowed” the wonderful personality of the younger brother from my son, Ross, who was five at the time. It was truly wrenching to put this beautiful paper child, who “felt” like my son to me, through the agonies of cancer treatment.
You do a wonderful job of balancing comedy and tragedy. What is the role of humor in a novel with serious themes?
Well, Frank McCourt was my high school creative writing teacher, and what I learned in Mr. McCourt’s class (and, later on, from reading Angela’s Ashes [Scribner, 1996][winner of the Pulitzer Prize]) is that people laugh a lot during the saddest times in their lives — or at least, resilient people do. And that laughter is the cornerstone of the healing process, at least for me.
Plus, thankfully, I’ve never met anyone who was sad 24/7/365. So even the most serious novel should have some humor in it, I think, if only for veracity!
Your protagonist, Steven, is age 13, which arguably puts this novel in the ‘tweener category. What are the particular challenges of reflecting this age group? How about marketing a book that isn’t clearly middle grade or upper YA?
You know what? When I told my older sister I was writing a funny novel about a 13-year-old whose little brother has cancer, she said, “Sounds like a real commercial blockbuster. Let me know how that goes!” So, needless to say, marketing was the farthest thing from my mind. I wasn’t thinking “middle grade” or “YA” — I just had to tell this particular story. The fact that the book is actually selling well is just a cosmic bonus.
This is one of the most intensely internal novels I’ve ever read, even though it has a strong external arc. Your technique of using italics for speech only heightens that sense of reader-character intimacy. Then in the last chapter, those quotation marks for the dialogue sound so loud, so alive, so much a part of the world. Could you talk about your process?
I truthfully have no idea how or why I chose the italics throughout, capped off by the quotation marks at the end. I just knew while I was writing that the italics were adding to the internal intensity. Then when I got to the last chapter, the quotes felt right.
I know that sounds horribly anti-analytical, but I was concentrating so hard on polishing the cancer parts and the actual wording of the dialogue that everything else was either secondary or just decided unconsciously. Just please don’t tell my students or my editor that I didn’t have it all 100% planned, with a detailed rationale for every move up front…
Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is your debut novel. Could you describe your path to publication? What advice do you have for other writers traveling along the way?
As I said above, my path to publication was completely bizarre — so I’m not sure anybody should ever get any publication pointers from me! The only real advice I have is to read a ton of books on publication, especially Judith Appelbaum‘s How to Get Happily Published [HarperCollins, 1998]. Also, network; tell everyone you know that you’ve written a book and are looking for a publisher. If nothing else, you will certainly find out who your true friends are.
What can your readers look forward to next?
I’m thrilled to announce that my second novel for young adults, Notes from the Midnight Driver, will be published by Scholastic Press in September 2006. You can read the first chapter at www.jordansonnenblick.com. For what it’s worth, both my mom and my dad liked Notes better than Drums. And the author’s parents must be totally unbiased, right?
Cynsational News & Links
Author Interview from Jordan Sonnenblick’s Web site.
“Some Stories are Meant to be Heard: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie” from Bookselling This Week. September 2004. Offers more insights into the novel’s publication history.
Super Sibs: “To Honor and Recognize Brothers and Sisters of Children with Cancer.”