Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Leslie Bulion and Universe of Fair

Today award-winning author, Leslie Bulion is here to talk about her marvelous new book, The Universe of Fair:

Eleven-year-old science enthusiast Miller Sanford sees himself as a responsible kid, but his parents think he's too young to explore the annual town Fair alone with his best friend. Hopeful that this year they will reconsider, Miller works extra hard to be nice to his little sister Penny and her friends. When his mother can’t attend the Fair and his father has to cover her volunteer booth hours as well as his own, Miller ends up with more responsibility than he can handle. Instead of enjoying a free-wheeling day on his own at the Fair, he is drawn into a series of mishaps involving a string of tagalong first graders, his dad s prize-worthy lemon meringue pie, flying death heads, a giant jack-o -lantern, and his Theory of Everything science fair project.

Miller Sanford is a wonderful character. He’s quirky, caring, and constantly scheming. How did you manage to channel the voice of an eleven year old boy so well? Is he inspired by a real boy? What about his buddy, video camera-toting Lewis? What inspired him?

Thanks for the lovely opportunity to visit you on your blog, Linda, and for your kind description of Miller. Once the manuscript was in revision I realized that he—and pretty much every character in this book—registers fairly high on the quirkiness scale. I loved following Miller’s reasoning as I wrote along, but I honestly think he’s cut and sewn of whole fiction cloth. Lewis is made-up, too, though my brother-in-law is a TV director/producer/editor who creates surprising and impossibly funny, coherent story videos out of clips you’d never think would work. So I know that at least in his universe, it’s possible!

This is my favorite kind of book. It’s laugh out loud funny, yet it has poignant moments, too. Could you tell us a little about how you work? Do you start with an underlying theme and then build in the funny situations, or do you start with the funny situations and then realize you have a theme?

Here’s what I knew when I started this book:
The setting would be an agricultural fair. A kid desperately wanted to be at the fair without parents. A mishap with a baked good would occur. That’s it—that’s all I had. I did think the fair would be a great setting for a wacky, funny story, but I didn’t realize I would spend the next year or two whining: funny is hard, funny is killing me. Most of the time, I’d write Miller and his ensemble through their crazy situations, and then I’d go back and get out of Miller’s way to try and let him (and the others) ramp up the humor. I wanted Miller to make me laugh. I think the groundwork for the humor was there, but more was added in revision.

Last weekend, before I did this interview, I went to the Washington County Fair. I sampled the fair food and watched the rides. I toured the booth where Miller’s Theory of Everything project would have been. Miller’s family is whole-heartedly involved in their fair. I believe it’s modeled after the fair in your home town. What does the fair mean to Miller, and to you?

The Durham Fair is the largest all-volunteer agricultural fair in North America. When you live here, you quickly learn that those volunteers have to come from someplace, and that someplace is the inside of your own shoes. Our kids come through a school system that’s steeped in Fair. Classes make and enter exhibits and every school group runs a fundraiser booth or staffs some part of the Fair. Most parents (and school parents emeriti) volunteer in one capacity or another, as do civic groups. The work is continuous, demanding, fun, and very social, infused with a true sense of community. Every kid longs for the same rite of passage as Miller—the freedom to roam the fair without parents. I’m reasonably sure that most don’t have the same terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, though (thank you, Judith Viorst). One of the most moving Fair experiences for me was seeing my daughters and their friends go off to college and return to the Fair every year for a ready-made reunion with their high school classmates. They filled our home with young adults that weekend, too, sharing their Fair roots with new friends.

Two strands are interwoven through your life, your love of writing and your love of science. You’ve written poems about bugs (Hey There Stink Bug!) and the ocean before (At the Sea Floor CafĂ©), but in this book you had theoretical physics. Really, theoretical physics! And you seamlessly incorporated it into the story. I absolutely loved how Miller tried to decide if string theory and extra dimensions could explain the existence of ghosts. What inspired you to write a middle grade novel about physics? How did you manage to blend it into the story?

I hope my master’s degree in science won’t be revoked for admitting that I’ve never taken a physics course in my life. Not even in high school. Since I incorporate science into all of my novels as well as in my science poetry, I decided to use this opportunity to address that gaping hole in my science education by reading and learning something about string theory. After my own research and several drafts of the manuscript, I asked a few physics buddies to take a little conjecture trip with Miller and me regarding ghosts and string theory, and I compared their more knowledge-based ideas to my own rudimentary ruminations to be sure I had come up with something remotely plausible. Plausible in the realm of extra dimensions, multiple universes and subatomic strings, that is.

• For Mentor Monday on Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s blog, you talked about how your fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Brownworth, encouraged your writing. Who and what have been some of the other influences on your work?

Everything influences my writing, Linda—everything I’ve ever read, all of the wonderful and generous writer and illustrator friends with whom I’ve shared work, workshops I’ve attended, SCBWI, theater, television, and my life experiences past and present. Mrs. Brownworth certainly started me on the poetry path, but I don’t remember writing fiction until I was in my 30’s taking a wonderful memoir-into-fiction class at Cornell Adult University with author Dennis A. Williams, many summers ago. I learned so much from Dennis about fiction, story, and writing, and about how to give and hear valuable crit in a generous and safe space. He invited me to send him my piece again after a revision—so encouraging. His was hands-down the best class I ever took at Cornell, including during my undergrad years. I wrote this limerick for him at the end-of-session “roast”:

The CAU students did shout,
Dennis, tell us what fiction’s about!
He said: tell your story,
All its truth, all its glory,
But if truth doesn’t work, throw it out!

One of the best lessons ever!

• You’ve written a picture book about East Africa (Fatuma’s New Cloth), a teen novel (Uncharted Waters), poetry books about science, and now a middle grade novel. Could you tell us about your journey as a writer? Where are you headed next?

Although Uncharted Waters is on some teen lists, I consider it older middle grade, and see myself as a middle-grade author, whether I’m writing poetry or novels.

Recently, I’ve been alternating between science poetry manuscripts and novels, and I’ll probably continue that pattern if I can. I love being immersed in the world of a novel, but when I have to say goodbye to the characters I’ve been living with for a year or more, I’m not always ready to move in with new ones—it’s a loyalty thing. So I turn to the next science poetry manuscript in the stack of waiting ideas. Writing poetry is an entirely different process for me, so in a way, it clears my emotional writing space for the next novel. My newest science poetry book, Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy Riddles in Verse will come out sometime in the next year.

Thanks so much for being a guest on my blog, Leslie! Can’t wait to read Random Body Parts. Folks can see a book trailer for The Universe of Fair at