What was the biggest challenge in writing your first novel?
The entire process of writing this novel was a challenge, and I tried to approach each little part as a separate learning exercise, a kind of writing workshop where I was the student and the (not very qualified) teacher. That way I didn't feel too frustrated if I worked on something for weeks and weeks only to realize that what I'd written was terrible. I just said to myself, well, I probably learned something important there and hopefully I'll do better on the next pass.
But thinking back on the many drafts I wrote, the biggest challenge was the character of Emma-Jean's father, Eugene Lazarus. In the first drafts (and there were many, many, many drafts!), Eugene was very much alive He and Emma-Jean's mother were divorced (and Emma-Jean's mother was heartbroken). He loved Emma-Jean, but didn't understand her. He was a source of distress for both Emma-Jean and her mother. As hard as I tried, I could never "feel" Eugene the way I felt all of the other characters. He always seemed out of place, like a guy who'd wandered into the wrong party and didn't fit in.
But then one day in the shower, I had this thought: "Eugene Lazarus is dead." I dried myself off, threw on my robe, and ran to my computer. And truly, within minutes, I understood him: that he had been a brilliant mathematician, that he had studied Poincare, that he and Emma-Jean had been kindred spirits, that he had been the love of Lisa Lazarus's life. I rewrote the book with the new Eugene, and within a few days I had the draft that was submitted to publishers. Though much of the book stayed the same, the spirit of Eugene Lazarus infused thestory with more emotion. The connection to her father provided Emma-Jean with an emotional life and depth that she lacked in earlier drafts, and a stronger link to her mother. The new Eugene, ironically, is much more alive to me than the old one.
In middle school, were you more like Emma-Jean or Colleen?
I was like Colleen in many ways. Like Colleen, I cared about everything and was always convinced that some humiliation was lurking just around the next row of lockers. My clay mug exploded in the kiln and I couldn't finish the mile in gym (though I didn't cry). Unlike Colleen, I never fell under the powers of a Laura Gilroy type. But I did have a small group of close friends and I am still in touch with all of them.
There were people like Emma-Jean in my school, people who were very content to be on the fringes of the messy middle school social scene. Like Colleen, I admired these kids. They seemed very free to me.
Was there any real-life inspiration for Emma-Jean or her "solutions" to her classmates' problems?
There was no real-life inspiration for Emma-Jean. I have known people who have some of her qualities, people of enormous intellect and character who don't move easily within the world of other people. But I didn't base Emma-Jean on anyone I know.
Emma-Jean inherited her father's love of Jules Henri Poincare. What made you choose Poincare to be such an important part of Emma-Jean's concept of herself?
Poincare had popped up in my reading over the years, and I always found him appealing. He was a rationalist with a huge heart, a bit like Albert Einstein. He was a brilliant mathematician but he understood that people and life are not logical. Though he entered the book late in the game, his theories helped me bring Emma-Jean's character into sharper focus.
What book has had the biggest impact on you and your writing?
I had learning problems when I was in elementary school, and didn't really start to read well until high school. I never read any of the middle grade classics that were popular when I was young- Harriet the Spy, Charlotte's Web, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ten years ago, I took over as editor of Storyworks magazine, which is aimed at kids 9. In preparation for that job, I gave myself a crash course in middle grade novels. I read dozens and dozens of them, and fell in love. It was during this process that I became inspired to try to write my own stories for kids, and determined to teach myself how. There were certain books that I read over and over again as I tried to understand how stories were built, how characters evolved. My favorites were When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, by Kimberly Willis Holt, Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, The Secret Life of Amanda K. Wood, by Ann Cameron. I'm incredibly lucky because as editor of Storyworks, I've worked with some of the greatest middle grade writers around - Roland Smith, Lisa Yee, Ann Martin, Johanna Hurwitz, Eleanora Tate, Avi, and so many others. I've learned from each of them. I've also gone back and read all those great books I wish I had been able to read when I was younger. My favorites are Charlotte's Web and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
When you're not writing, what kind of things do you enjoy doing?
My husband and I have four children: Leo is 17, Jeremy is 14, Dylan is 9, and Valerie is 3. So when I'm not working on Storyworks or writing, I'm spending time with my family, including my mother-in-law, who lives with us, my parents and my grandmother, who live nearby, and my brother and his family. I also love being with my friends. I met my two best friends in sixth grade, and still talk to one of them almost every day.
In quite moments, I love to read. Lately I've been reading mostly about exploration and the American frontier. I enjoy biking and hiking and being outside. I do many crafts (not too well).
Could you give us a look into your next book?
I'm working on two separate projects right now, both middle-grade novels. One is a bit like Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, in that it is set in a middle school and involves two characters who connect and bring out the best in each other. The other is historical. Soon I'll need to decide which one to focus on.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
The most important advice I can offer is that writing is a craft that you can learn by practicing. If you keep writing, you will improve. Many writers are afraid of writing something bad, so they don't try or give up when their efforts don't lead to a masterpiece right away. If you work at it, you will improve. I had the opportunity to interview J.K Rowling, along with a few of my colleagues at Scholastic, just after the first Harry Potter was published in the U.S. She said that she wrote two or three novels before she wrote Harry Potter. "They were terrible," she said. But she emphasized that if she hadn't written those, she would never have written Harry Potter. So start writing now. Get those not-so-great stories out of the way so that you can get to the stories you will be proud of.