Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interview with Ann Haywood Leal

author of Also Known As Harper

A member of the 2k9 class, this is Ann's first published novel. Her interview is delightful and humorous. We hope you enjoy it!

Her novel focuses on Harper Lee Morgan, a fifth-grader, for whom life is up and down. Her father and his drinking are gone, and her mother is trying to hold the family together, but the rent is past due, and their landlady, Mrs. Early, is out of patience. Harper Lee knows that all too well, thanks to the snide comments of her classmate Winnie Rae Early. Harper is focused on readying her poetry for a school contest, but when her mother loses her job and Harper has to stay home with her younger brother, Hemingway, her hopes for the contest fade away. First-time novelist Leal takes a narrative with familiar elements—the family abandoned by the drunken father, a seemingly hopeless situation redeemed by a hopeful heroine—and elevates it with her characters, who though familiar are sharply and sympathetically drawn. One of the highlights is Harper’s poetry, interspersed throughout the book. Although the ideas behind the poems are sometimes sophisticated for a fifth-grader, they are written in a clear and natural way that will speak to readers and make them think.

1. What one thing helped you the most with your writing?
Definitely writing everyday and scheduling in a specific time for it. I’m teaching full-time, so if I don’t set aside that exact writing time, something else will come along to nudge it away. Also, if I don’t write everyday, I seem to lose the “flow” of my story, and I end up wasting a lot of time going back to pick that up.

2. Do you start with a plot, a situation or a character? Do you outline before you start?
I used to write for a small local newspaper and outlines worked great for that. But for fiction, I’m not a big outliner. I like to start with a character, or with a really unusual setting. I was out on a run one day and I passed a vacant lot. The house had been torn down to make way for a new housing development, and all that was left was an old swimming pool, partially filled with dirty rainwater. I went back later with my camera and that pool made its way into ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. I’ve found that if I look beyond the obvious and go one step further, I always find my story.

3. How did you get an agent and find a publisher? What has your experience of the business side of being an author been like?
I read an article in a newsletter called Children’s Writer. My agent was quoted in the article and I really liked what he had to say. I appreciated his honesty and his candor and I knew that was the kind of person I’d love to have represent me. We had some emails back and forth for a few weeks and then he called me. So he is the one who actually found the right publisher for me. But I feel I need to backtrack and say that it wasn’t just a one-shot deal for me. I had been trying for years to get both an agent and an editor. I remember seeing Jerry Spinelli speak at an SCBWI conference; as he went up to the podium, he towed a huge shopping bag stuffed with rejection letters. I remember thinking to myself, I’ve got a whole room full of those! If Jerry Spinelli kept going, so can I! In hindsight, it’s probably a really good thing I didn’t get those early manuscripts published. When I look back at them now, I know they weren’t nearly ready.

The business side of being an author has been interesting and exciting. It’s completely new to me, so I try to ask questions of my agent and my editor whenever I need to. Being a member of the Class of 2k9 has also been wonderful, because you can bounce ideas off the rest of the group. They are incredibly supportive of each other, and they are going through virtually the same types of things at around the same time.

4. What is one of your favorite parts of your book? Why do you like it so much and how did it come to be?
One of my favorite parts is toward the beginning where Harper comes home from school and all of her belongings are spread out on her front lawn. I think I like it so much, because it shows that some things are just beyond your control and you have to pick yourself up and go on. That particular scene came about because I saw an article in my local newspaper. Outreach workers were trying to get an accurate count of the homeless in the area. The accompanying picture had a man sitting in the dirt under a tree in an upholstered armchair. His trailer had been towed away, along with all of his possessions, including his family pictures. I tried to imagine how that would feel.

5. Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most like to hear had read your book and loved it? Why?
I’m going to cheat and pick two. My mother passed away ten years ago and she used to read everything I wrote. I would have loved for her to have read ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. The second would have to be Harper Lee.

6. Are you part of a critique group? If so, how does that fit into your process? At what point do you let someone else read your work?
I am actually part of two wonderful critique groups. One I have been with for over seven years. One of the members, Margaret Welch, lives only a couple of blocks away from me, but the furthest member lives almost two hours away; so we meet in the middle at a little coffee shop/used book store in New Haven. There are four of us and we meet once a month. We each bring about ten pages or so to read, with copies for everyone. Our rule is to be kind, but brutal.
I trust my critique group immensely, so I will let them read my work when it’s a very rough first draft. Sometimes I’ll even run over to Margaret’s house to get her quick opinion on something.
Critique groups can be tricky, and I feel very lucky to have gotten the right mix of members. I feel that you have to be willing to politely disagree, and you can’t have too many members. I think once you get past 6 or 7, you can’t spend enough time on anyone’s work.

7. What is the question you never get asked in an interview but are always dying to answer?
Hmmmm…how about: What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I write five perfect chapters that need no revisions. I go for a five mile run that only takes me about thirty minutes and nothing hurts. Then Kevin Costner shows up begging me to go to a private showing of his new movie, but I have to say no, because my husband is waiting in the kitchen where he has made some chocolate with chocolate-covered chocolate that has negative calories. (It actually makes you lose a half a pound per bite.) I could go on, but I’m running out of hours in my day.

8. You hinted that you might read from your very first novel written when you were twelve, the one in the green notebook, at your book release party? Did you?
As tempting as it was, I did not read from it. I would love to debut it here on Slushbusters, though…

We've invited Ann to post this novel on the blog.


Michelle said...

Great interview! Thanks, Joan, for doing it. And thanks, Ann, for visiting us!

Annie said...

Thanks so much! It was my pleasure!

Tess said...

What a fun interview...I love hearing where the ideas grew from. Good stuff!

Sarah said...

Oooo! I'm definitely up for seeing a bit from your first novel!

Thanks, Ann, for the great interview, and if you ever do come across any of that negative-calorie chocolate...