I know Jennifer Holm wears a SuperWoman costume under her clothes. She is not only a prolific writer, and total bundle of positive energy, she took time out while on book tour to participate in this blog interview! That is truly superhuman!
I’ve been a fan of Jenni’s before we became Silver Sisters in 2007 — Our Only May Amelia opened my eyes to what historical fiction could be like in the hands of an expert story teller. Drawing once again on bits of her own family history (I want to get into this family!), she has a new book, Turtle in Paradise, inspired by her great-grandmother’s story. So, make yourself a cup of instant coffee, sit back and enjoy getting to know Jennifer Holm.
Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?
Flashlight AND bugs (and frogs and turtles and salamanders)! I grew up with four brothers.
Who are the writers you read to be inspired?
Lately I have been re-reading the old Prince Valiant strips by Hal Foster which were a mainstay of my childhood.
Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?
I tend to keep photos of the relatives who inspired the book on my desk when I am working on a new project. For TURTLE, I had a copy of my Nana (my great-grandmother) who grew up in Key West.
Jenni’s great-grandfather, mother, great-grandmother (Nana) in Key West
I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?
Uh, daycare and babysitters sustain and nourish me. A lot. I used to be able to write with kids running around, but now I need quiet.
What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?
Don’t write in a different genre.
What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?
Ignoring the above advice.
What are you proudest of in your work?
That I finished the second book. That was much harder to write than the first one.
How do you know when you have a story just right?
I don’t think I ever know. I just hope.
How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?
Babymouse took about four years, give or take, from being an idea to being published. The last two years were insane as we had to figure out how to produce and publish a graphic novel.
What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?
The sheer amount of time I waste on Facebook.
A series of questions about work habits:
Computer or long-hand? Computer (Macbook)
Coffee or tea? Coffee (instant)
Quiet office or music going? Quiet
Desk: messy or tidy? Messy when I am deep in a project
Essential writing snack food: popcorn
This is another great story coming out of your family history. Generally, Depression era stories seemed centered on Oklahoma, or the big cities; I loved that this book was set in Key West, Florida. I know the setting is factual, and that Turtle is based on your great-grandmother. Now I have to ask —is the “Diaper Gang” something of your own creation? It’s hard to imagine boys taking on such a job!
Ha! (Candy is a great motivator.) The Diaper Gang was actually inspired by kids in my old neighborhood. A whole pack of them—boys and girls— used to babysit my son for treats—usually pizza or ice cream.
Turtle is so appropriately named – hiding behind that shell of hers. Which came first – the name or the personality?
The name. Also, the turtle industry (catching and processing sea turtles) was once one of Key West’s main industries, so it is also a little nod to that.
Turtle has so little to call her own. I was surprised that her Aunt Minnie takes away her paper dolls when Turtle comes to live with them, claiming they were her own. Can you tal
k about that scene a bit?
That scene was really more about Aunt Minnie’s relationship with her sister (Turtle’s mother). How feuds and drama sometimes last forever when siblings are involved.
Despite all the tough things that happen to her, I finished the book confident that Turtle was going to make it, that things would eventually be okay for her, and for Mama. Can you talk about finding the balance between realistically re-creating those Depression times and yet still leaving the reader hope for Turtle?
It was tricky. I didn’t want a Shirley Temple “happy ending”, yet I wanted Turtle to be in a better place than she was in the beginning of the book. And I think she is.
As a fellow fan of historical fiction, I’m curious about your research processes. What captivated you the most about this time period? What great fact did you have to leave out? Can you share some of your favorite research tips?
aerial view of Key West
I think this is always the challenge when you’re writing historical fiction—to keep the story the priority. My favorite tidbit that didn’t make it into the book was about what happened when there was a fire in Key West. The houses were all wood and built close together, so fires were deadly and could potentially take down whole blocks. During one fire, all the inhabitants of a street evacuated their belongings from their houses and put them in the cemetery for safekeeping. (It was the nearest place with no wood.) I have this hilarious image in my head of beds, dressers, and pots and pans all stacked up next to tombstones!
About writing in general:
I’m dying to know how you work on both graphic chapter books (the wildly popular BabyMouse) AND a historical novel at the same time –how do you do it?
Well, let’s just say it is taking a lot longer to write my novels than it used to. Between Babymouse and Squish (our new graphic novel series debuting Summer 2011), I do sometimes have a hard time getting back into the historical fiction vibe.
Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?
I really like salt. I collect unusual kinds—pink, black, yellow. Everybody gives me salt for presents.
Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about?
I can twirl a baton.
Now I know who can lead the next Kid Lit float entry in the Macy’s parade!
Thank you, Jenni, for carving out this time for us. I know Turtle will find an ocean of fans out there!