Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Author Leslie Connor talks about Crunch

I’d like to welcome author Leslie Connor, to my blog today to talk about her middle grade novel, Crunch. Leslie’s books have won numerous awards, and Crunch is no exception. I counted ten on her website, including Kirkus Best Books of 2010.

Since April 22 is Earth Day, and I have my own environmental book coming out this month, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story, I just couldn’t pass up this title.

Crunch’s main character, Dewey Marriss, has promised to manage the family’s bike repair business just when the gas pumps run dry. Now his parents are stranded up north, and everyone in town needs a bike.

Dewey and his older sister Lil must look after their younger siblings and run the bike shop on their own. But bike parts are going missing. Is the thief someone they know?

Hi, Leslie! Crunch deals with the energy crisis and the danger of relying on fossil fuels. Yet you are never heavy-handed with that message. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to write about this topic and how you developed the story idea?

Hi, Linda. Thank you for inviting me to visit you at your blog today. I am charmed to be here.

So, I had the idea for Crunch percolating in the back of my mind basically because I am a drifty, dreamy sort who likes to drive down the highway imagining what it’d be like out there with no cars or trucks. (Oh! Smooth and easy biking!)
A few summers ago, gas prices began to rise—a lot. I was being more careful to combine my errands and I made fewer trips out. I wondered what it’d be like if gas got too expensive for most of us…or if the pumps went dry. I remember the energy crisis of the ‘70’s when we went to odd and even (by license plate numbers) at the pumps. My Mom would go and wait in line and sometimes not be back for an hour or more.
I did a lot of thinking about the inventiveness and resourcefulness of human beings. When I thought about travel, the immediate answer was BIKES.

I admire authors who can write in an authentic first person kid’s voice. Did Dewey’s voice come naturally or did you have to work at it? What was your process?

Characters seem to make their way to my ear naturally. (I’m a lucky writer in that regard.) It was interesting for me to write in first person from a male point of view. But I had two brothers growing up and I raised two sons and I am a terrific eavesdropper. Every so often I asked the males in my household, “Hey, would a guy say this?” (My family loves to take me to task.)

As a kid, I was drawn to books where kids had to manage on their own, without adults. You get Dewey’s parents out of the way, stuck in Canada without any gas to get home, and you keep other helpful adults on the periphery with Lil’s prickly pride in handling things on her own. Did you consciously try to keep the adults out of this story?

Yes, having Dewey’s parents away was always in my vision for this story. That was one more problem I could throw at poor Dewey. But I can never bear to leave my young characters completely without some adult nearby who could step in. (That is for my comfort and for the comfort of the reader.) I saw the Marriss’s as a family that had friends in the wings.

There was a lot of stuff about bike repair in this story. The Marrisses also live on a farm and sell eggs and goat’s milk. Are you a biker? Did you ever live on a farm? How much personal experience and how much research went into this book?

I do draw on personal experiences for my projects, Linda. I ride a cruiser/hybrid bike, outfitted with a nice front basket and a rear rack. I can get downtown in under twenty minutes if I pedal hard. For years my husband I rode a tandem together, and I loved that because I could sit on the back and look around while he steered. Both my sons work in a bike store, and my husband has built several bikes from parts while I…ahem…watched. (And if your chain fell off, I could most likely get that back on for you.) So once again, I had good help when it came to writing Crunch!
As for living on a farm, well I have lived in farmhouses, and very close to farms without ever really being The Farmer, though I dream of it. I garden, and I did own two little red hens for a while. I’m on a first-name basis with my neighbor’s goats and sheep, and I will confess right here that I like the smell of horse manure.

Will Dewey and his younger brother Vince be able to keep up with the demand at the bike shop? When will their parents make it home? Who’s stealing those bike parts? Who can they trust? The pace of this story never lags. How did you manage to juggle all these story strands?

Yikes! Your questions take me back to the months when I was writing the story. I worried about those threads—a lot! I’m glad it worked out, but believe me, that manuscript looked like a big crazy forsythia bush for a while and had to be pruned without feeling. When I am working on a novel there is a little bell inside of me that occasionally dings and tells me, hey, you haven’t mentioned such-and-such for six chapters!

In era of angst-driven novels, the Marriss family is refreshingly different. They work together well, taking responsibility for the bike shop and each other. Dad guides Dewey but never tells him what to do. Yet each member of this family is a distinct individual. How did you come up with these marvelous characters?

Wow. Thanks so much! The answer is I’m a good spy! The Marriss’s are, at least partly, spun from some dear friends of ours. They had five kids when we met them and went up to eight. I was always impressed with how responsible the older children in that family were for the youngest members. My characters are always composites of people I know, people I’ve heard about, or people I can imagine. Serendipity becomes a wonderful tool in that regard too.

You didn’t always envision yourself as a writer. Could you tell us about your winding journey to this career? How do your past careers influence your writing?

I came to children’s books thinking of myself more as an illustrator. I fell in love with art very early and earned a Fine Arts degree in college. I felt my compass was pointed straight at picture books: art, with a narrative in mind. But then novel writing surprised me the way a friendly tap on the shoulder might. I’m not sure why it took me so long to acknowledge that there was a writer in me. The signs were there; I had always written behind closed doors. I find art and writing very similar and I guess that isn’t profound since both are creative processes. Like many authors, I think in pictures and I run mental movies and snippets of dialog. All. Day. Long.

Your first book, Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel was a picture book. Next came a YA novel in verse, Dead on Town Line. Your two more recent books Waiting for Normal and Crunch were middle grade novels. Your writing has taken you in many different directions. How do you feel about your varied career? Do you have a favorite genre or age group?

I’m surprised! And pleased! I feel not very responsible for the way these projects arrive to me. One thing I love about genre hopping is that, for me, it seems to keep the writing crisp. I like “Beginner’s Mind” and so if I’ve been away from a genre for little while, I feel new to it again when I come back. If I have a favorite genre, it is probably older middle grade, or ‘tween. Interestingly, that was a time of struggles for me as a kid. Perhaps I set some roots down.

I hear you’re currently working on a YA Contemporary novel, The Things You Kiss Goodbye. Could you give us a sneak preview of what that book will be about?

Oh, sure I will. The story is about sixteen-year-old Bettina Vasilis. A history of restrictive parenting has her dipping her toe into the social scene at her high school a bit behind the rest of the crowd. In spite of that, she finds herself beginning her junior year in a serious romantic relationship with the high school basketball star. She has even won a spot on the cheerleading squad at his urging. But it is all a bad fit. For one thing, the adorable guy bouncing the orange ball is furtively abusive. One day, while Bettina is running away from him, she runs smack into someone incredible—someone kind, enticing, and completely forbidden. So begins a tricky walk on a tightrope of deception.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Yes! I’d like to tell you how much I am looking forward to your important new title, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story. I am an avid reader of powerful nonfiction, and I know your book will not disappoint.

Wow! That's high praise, especially coming from an accomplished like you. Thank you! And thanks so much for joining me today. I loved Crunch, and I’m so pleased that I had a chance to share it with my readers.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and for your graciousness, Linda. Let’s make sure our paths cross again! Cheers! ~Leslie