I had the pleasure of meeting the kind, warm and talented Leslie Connor at the Tucson Festival of the Books. Sadly, we only had a brief time together but it sure made me wish I could call her up and take her out to coffee on a regular basis. I am delighted to host her today for Friend Friday in celebration of her new book, All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, (Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen).
A warm hello! My special thanks to you, Kirby, for inviting me to Friend Friday. (I love it here!)
My stories begin with one small thing that won’t leave me alone. I have said it before; I write what I cannot ignore. The first tiny spore might come from an object, a place, a phrase, or a scene from every day life. My initial fascination cannot be unexplained—and it is best when I don’t know the whole true story. My imagination likes being free to grow it.
My newest title, All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, is the (unlikely!) story of a boy, born and raised at the (fictional) Blue River Coed Correctional Facility in tiny Surprise, Nebraska. This happens by special arrangement. Perry’s loving mom is a resident on Cell Block C. The warden fosters the boy. All is well, until Perry is discovered by an ambitious district attorney, who pulls him out of Blue River.
The dot in the petri dish for this story was a New York Times article on a long-time inmate at the Bedford Hills Women’s prison. Her story included radicalism, reform, regret, and this surprise: excellence. She was an effective parent to the daughter she’d left on the outside in spite of her incarceration. That became the child-centered element I could not ignore. The situation was rich with themes of guilt, family, love and forgiveness. The story began to grow.
I always have to feed my spores with research. (I had a prison to build and populate.) I read inmate case studies, prison blogs, and a detailed handbook for individuals about to enter prison. I also came across the sad fact that one in twenty-eight school aged children in the United States has a parent who is incarcerated. Many of them don’t have transportation to the facilities on visiting days. That broke my heart.
Eventually, a character named Perry T. Cook came along. He hitched himself to all those snippets of research, and the spore bloomed. His voice was was steady and earnest and thoughtful. I needed him for the leap I was taking; a boy growing up in a prison was a hefty chunk of unrealistic realistic fiction. How was the reader going to trust me? One way: I let my characters rule my heart. I learn what their emotional truth is and sew it to the situation. If I do it well, the reader comes along for the ride.
Family is made up of the people who love you. Perry came with an unusual one—the rag-tag residents of the correctional facility. They sprang to life in my writer’s mind after learning exactly who is in our minimum-security prisons. I thought about crimes vs. mistakes. I filled with empathy and sympathy. When the residents share their life stories with Perry (part of the plotline) my emotions informed the telling.
Final note: Those ancillary characters were unruly squatters in the petri dish; they wanted to take over with their checkered backstories. Lesson for the writer: Keep a pair of tweezers near that petri dish.
As a kid, Leslie was a daydreamer who loved to be upside down in odd places such as the middle of the stairs, which might explain why she went around with a headful of stories, though nobody can be sure about that. She studied visual art in college and is happily surprised to be writing today. Leslie is the genre-hopping author of several award-winning books for children including a picture book, Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel, the middle grade novels, Crunch, and Waiting for Normal, winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award. She has written two teen novels, Dead on Town Line and The Things You Kiss Goodbye. Leslie’s newest title, All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, is for middle grade readers. A diehard Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, she lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in a little house in the (not so) big Connecticut woods.
This might be one of my favorite books of the year, so far! LOVE this thought, Leslie-
“He hitched himself to all those snippets of research, and the spore bloomed.”