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Carol Weston Talks with Roger

carol weston talks with roger

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carol westonIn Ava and Taco Cat, Carol Weston’s second book about sisters Ava and Pip, fifth-grader Ava negotiates some of tweendom’s most essential relationships: with your sister, your best friend, and your parents. Put a much-longed-for cat into the mix and you’ve got middle-grade drama at its most appealing.

Roger Sutton: How are you, Carol?

Carol Weston: I’m well, thank you. How are you?

RS: Just fine.

CW: I’m glad you’re calling me on pub day.

RS: What’s that like, pub day?

CW: This is not the first time I’ve had a book come out, but I think for first-time authors, you expect it to be Christmas morning or something, and sometimes it’s quiet. The book is in the stores, but it doesn’t mean that everybody has just finished reading it.

RS: Did you ever read Anne Lamott’s essay in Bird by Bird about book publication day? Where she talks about getting up in the morning and thinking it’s going to be great, and how she practices aw-shucks stubbing her toe in the dirt, preparing to receive all the compliments, and of course no one pays any attention whatsoever.

CW: I loved Bird by Bird. I’ve actually had forty letters published in the New York Times. It’s always exciting, and people do see them, but it’s not as though your phone rings in the morning. A week later people will say, “Oh, I saw you had a letter in the Times.” So I guess it’s good that I planned today to wake up, read the paper, go to the gym.

RS: I think it can be hard these days, with social media, because there can be such quick response to things, and when you don’t get it…

CW: Oh, it is such a noisy world. It’s amazing any of us gets any attention. I’m probably better taking it in stride and having realistic expectations. That said, if I’m having a book event I work pretty hard to let people know. I don’t just hope that the bookstore will fill up all by itself. Bookstores appreciate it when authors know that they have to do their part. If you have a book event in your hometown, or a place where you have friends, and you let your friends know, then you’re probably good to go. But if you have a book event in Indianapolis and you don’t know anybody, then even famous authors have to hope for the best.

RS: What do you find are the special challenges, both artistically and in terms of promoting the second book in a series?

CW: You know, it’s funny. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and I, together, have decided that we’re not necessarily calling this a series, maybe because of those challenges. For instance, the New York Times gave the first book, Ava and Pip, a lovely review, but they may or may not mention a second book in a series.

RS: Right.

CW: Unless it’s Harry Potter. On the other hand, as we were just saying, it’s hard to get noticed at all, so if you can get your first book in the series to be noticed, to land, then it’s nice. Kids love series books. If they like the first one, they’ll gobble them up. Child and parent are both happy to see another one in the bookstore. I’m already very far along in the third book, which will be called Ava XOX. Each book needs to work as a standalone, but I love that I created this whole world, Ava’s town of Misty Oaks. I hope to keep writing brand-new books, but I also like finding my way back into the same characters, the same family.

RS: Do you find you have to do any particular kind of extra work, because there are going to be some readers who read the first book and some who haven’t? How do you balance the expectations of those two groups?

CW: Pretty carefully. I will have a few lines that are there to amuse the fans, but I have to be sure never to confuse the new readers. So I’ll say something like “My big sister Pip, who used to be so, so shy…” To somebody who’s read the first book, that’s practically the entire plot of it. You know, I met Sue Grafton before she became Sue Grafton.

RS: What letter is she up to?

CW: I think she’s up to — X has not come out. W Is for Wasted I definitely read, and I think X has not come out. We became friends back in Columbus, Ohio, and we’re still very good friends. I read A Is for Alibi in manuscript form, and now she’s up to W, so I have watched her deftly reintroduce Kinsey Millhone in each book. I’ve been able to learn at the hands of a master.

RS: She has it tough, too, because she’s got to finish the alphabet. She must have realized by about F or G that she was in it for the long haul, whereas you can keep going with Ava or not.

CW: That’s true. And even my editor — I love my editor; his name is Steve Geck — he and I both are thinking, well, maybe we’ll keep going, or maybe not, but I love that he’s given me the open invitation. I am under contract to write one more Ava book, and also one non-Ava book, but I said to him, “I love hanging out in Misty Oaks.” I love that he wants me to be taken seriously as a literary writer, so he doesn’t want me to get pigeonholed, but neither of us is going to leave Ava and Pip hanging if we’re both still enjoying working with them. I appreciate that it’s not set in stone.

weston_ava and pipRS: I think it’s very interesting the way you have these very standard, child-appealing motifs, like getting a new pet, dealing with your sister, and what happens when your best friend gets a new best friend. But those are all complicated in interesting ways in this book. Like the fact that the sisters are only two years apart. Often you’ll see more of an age difference in that kind of a story, so that one is clearly a teenager and one is clearly not. Here we see the way the sisters’ interests blend and diverge throughout the book. It goes back and forth. I thought that was neat.

CW: Thank you. Well, as you may know, I’m also the Dear Carol advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine. I’ve been doing that for twenty-one years. And I’m the mother of two daughters (now grown up), so I happen to be acutely aware of what it means to be an eleven-year-old girl versus a thirteen-year-old girl versus a fifteen-year-old girl. If I were writing about boys, I’d probably struggle with that a little bit more. But with girls, I know every little step along the way. I like the idea of the girls who are in between, who aren’t kids, but they’re not teens. Ava’s sister Pip is still pretty darn young, but, yeah, she’s got herself a boyfriend. It’s pretty innocent, but it’s important.

RS: About the pet adoption — I wanted to thank you for showing how difficult the period of adjustment is. We got a dog a couple years ago — rescue dog — and he was very shy and scared in the shelter, and they said, “Oh, you get him home and he’ll warm right up.” Well, it took two years.

CW: Wow.

RS: Six months living in the closet. We’d go for walks and then come in and he’d march to his little closet and sit there and look at us. So I love that you show that it’s not going to be this wonderful bonding as soon as you get them in the door, which I think some kids expect.

CW: It does take a while. Everything’s gradual. Everything’s baby steps.

RS: The other thing I wanted to ask you, both in terms of this book and your position as an advice columnist for girls, is why do you think we see so many middle-grade dramas for girls mining these stories of three-way friendships? I’m a guy. It didn’t really work for us like that as boys. But for girls, it’s huge.

CW: Do you mean why in real life, or why there are so many books about that?

RS: I guess both.

CW: It is so hard for girls. That first friendship: “We’re best friends.” It’s almost like being a couple. So when all of a sudden there’s somebody else, you’re kind of like, “Huh?” Most adults know how to navigate friendships, and if our friend makes another friend, well, that’s certainly fine. But when you’re a child, and your best friend makes another friend at camp or school, it feels like an earthquake. It shouldn’t be devastating, and eventually kids learn that you don’t have to like all of your friend’s friends. You and your friend just have to like each other. But that’s a lesson you have to learn. I get so many letters about it. When I write my fiction I don’t want it to be all laden with takeaway messages, but I know what kids think about because of the advice column, and I can’t help wanting to help them.

RS: So how do you keep on this side of the line, so that you’re not preaching or being didactic about how a person should be with her friends?

CW: You create realistic characters and add humor. In my advice column, I really can’t be very funny. I think adult advice columnists can be, but eleven-year-olds do not want humor about bras or boyfriends or anything like that. I’ve learned to just make it very sincere and earnest. But in fiction I can be funny, and that’s helpful.

RS: Why do you think that is? I think you’re right, but why do you think that kids can accept it in fiction, whereas they couldn’t in straight-on advice?

CW: With an advice person, they want somebody very safe, where they can say, “My right breast is smaller than my left breast” or “I like my best friend’s boyfriend. I’m a terrible person.” They don’t want to know whether the advice columnist has a sense of humor. It’s just too important. A kid finally admitting something — they just want you to give them the equivalent of a big hug and a bunch of wisdom, to tell them that it’s okay, and they’re not the only one, and here are some ideas.

With fiction, kids want to laugh. They want to learn, but they also want to laugh. They want to just turn the pages and have fun. It’s a different animal. As far as not preaching, I’m also lucky—and it’s a luck that I’ve worked for—in that I have a group of friends of all ages, kids and grownups, who read my work. If I’m getting a little heavy-handed about anything, they’ll say so. And this includes my husband and my kids. They will give me very honest feedback

RS: Do you find that these readers have pointed out something consistently to you so that you think, “Oh, yeah, I really need to work on this?”

CW: Yes. In the old days, because I’m an advice columnist, I would get my characters in trouble and then quickly help them out. By now I’ve learned that when I’m writing fiction, you get your characters in trouble, and you keep them in trouble for a long time. You throw more obstacles at them, and make them suffer. I hate making an eleven-year-old girl suffer. I try to help her out as much as I can. I surround her with lifesavers.

RS: That’s interesting, because that’s almost the same thing as what you’re saying about humor. That in real life, of course you want to help a child as quickly as you can, but in fiction, kids want to see other kids get in trouble, just as they want to be able to laugh at the characters they read about. Because there’s a distance between them and the character in the book. It’s not them.

Do you see a lot of yourself in Ava?

CW: I really wasn’t a big reader in fifth grade. I admired kids who were, and my best friend was a bookworm, but I was just a kid with a diary for the longest time. I would read the schoolbooks, but pleasure reading wasn’t something that I really did. I did read Aesop’s Fables, but they’re really short. There is a lot of me in Ava. I’m certainly a cat person. It’s funny: it’s my fourteenth book, but this is the first time I’ve written about a fifth-grade girl with a diary and a cat. You’d think I would have written that one already.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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