Saturday, February 2, 2019

Castle of Concrete by Katia Raina

 Today, I get to celebrate my friend Katia Raina's new YA book Castle of Concrete!  

There's more about the book below but first, I want to tell you about Katia.  A decade ago, we met for the first time outside at a local restaurant, chatted about writing and life, and by the end of the night I had a new friend. Katia wrote about that day on her blog.

Katia is one of the most interesting and thoughtful people I know.  And she's fearless.  When she lived here in New Jersey, we'd meet at a local diner where she'd share her adventures. Katia grew up in the Soviet Union during its collapse and that's where her new book takes place. During one of our writing sessions, she talked about writing a book based on those experiences.  I'm so happy this book is going to be out in the world. I can't wait to read it!

Here's the description of her new book from her publisher:

 Set in the final year of Soviet Russia’s collapse, this stunning debut novel tells the story of Sonya, a timid Jewish girl reuniting with her once-dissident mother and falling in love with a mysterious muddy-eyed boy who may be an anti-Semite. All the while, Sonya’s mama is falling in love also—with shiny America, a land where differences seem to be celebrated.  

  Unfortunately this interview was virtual since she's move out of state. But I'm thrilled to be able to ask Katia these questions and to learn more about her book: 

How did your experiences as a teen growing up in the Soviet Union during that time influence your story?

I was a bit younger than Sonya during the events taking place in Castle of Concrete, but many experiences growing up in those turbulent times inspired the book and in many ways made it what it is. The big, life-defining moments like first romance, starting a new school and reuniting with my mother after a long separation, hearing anti-Semitic slurs casually tossed around by strangers -- and worse -- friends.  But it wasn't just the big things. It was playing the piano to deal with feelings, and hanging out on construction sites. It was rides in crowded buses and visiting a McDonald's for the first time. It was standing up to a teacher. (There is a moment in Castle of Concrete, where Sonya uses a quote from a great Russian author to try and defend her dignity against a teacher, while expressing a very Russian sentiment that beauty is important, physical beauty included. Specifically, when the teacher quotes Tolstoy at her as saying "Modesty beautifies," Sonya fires back with a line from Chekhov: "Everything in a person must be beautiful." Well, this bit was based on a real exchange between an adolescent me and my sarcastic teacher. Of course now I am a teacher, myself, and I make it a point to never make a young person feel small because of their occasionally questionable clothing choices. :)

Having given you all these examples, it's important that I make very clear that this book is fiction. Sonya has a lot in common with the young me, but we are not the same person and the same things didn't happen to us. Castle of Concrete is woven in equal part of memory, research and imagination.

You started this story years ago (I remember us talking about it in the diner).  Can you talk about how this book came to be?

I started this book when my baby daughter was just born. Now, in the year it's being published she is 15, going on 16, just like Sonya. Now that's a scary thought!

I have always loved writing, especially short stories and poetry. As a young mother, I decided to quit a demanding journalist job to raise my then-toddler son and suddenly found myself with time and inner space for creativity. So I signed up for a correspondence course at the Institute of Children's Literature -- because I am that person who works well with creative guidance -- and started experimenting with goofy short stories for little kids and picture books. At the end of the course, working with author Kristi Holl, I decided to start a novel. That's when the ideas for Castle of Concrete came flooding in.

This book didn't come from a single lightbulb moment. It was more a collection of memories and many little ideas that came together into a big one in a process so magical I am having a hard time describing it or locating its origins. I took strong feelings lingering from adolescence, including the urge for romance, the need for connection and the fear of rejection and combined it with big questions, like why do people hate others so much? Why do people need an "other?" That's how the idea for Castle of Concrete was born.
What was your writing process for this book?

I poured my ideas into an outline and started. Kristi at the Institute of Children's Literature loved the first chapter and encouraged me to keep at it. The first draft writing took me about three months. It was so much fun and so easy. Little did I know that the revision process for this story would stretch over years and years. I spent many days, mornings and evenings, luxuriating in the setting and consumed by the characters, as I was getting to know them better and better with each pass. Of course there were many dark moments as well. There would be times when I'd say to this book, "Okay, story. Whatever you have to share, share it now, or be done with it. Because I can't do this forever, you know. This is a heads-up: ready or not, I am moving on." And I did move on, over and over, on to other manuscripts, other revisions. I enrolled in Vermont College of Fine Arts, I explored other ideas.

The traditional advice is: start a story, finish it, move on. It's good advice, and I tried so, so hard to follow it. Yet, gently but persistently, Castle of Concrete, would always find a way to rope me back in. I re-read, I tinkered. I reconsidered. I got feedback from writer friends and a few publishing industry professionals who loved Castle in its earliest, most imperfect incarnations and whose passionate guidance absolutely helped shape the book it would become. I took the feedback and revised, then revised again. Hopefully this give you an idea. :) That was the process, just scratching for the truth and seeing it come slowly forward. Until I could feel like yes, this was the story I had been trying to tell. This was the song I had been trying to sing.

That has been my process!

Thank you so much for answering these questions, my friend. You can learn more about Katia and her new book by visiting her blog

Congratulations Katia! 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Tamara Ellis Smith asked me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Here's Tamara's  post  on Kiss the Earth , a blog she shares with author Sharry Phelan Wright.  How can you not love a writing blog that is named after a line in a poem written by the poet and zen master Thich Nhat Hanh?
I met Tamara in a unusual way.  When Neil Armstong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me first came out I found a commercial on YouTube from a boy who had read the book. It was amazing. As an author, there is nothing better than watching a commercial about your book that was written and acted by a fifth-grader. The boy had long curly hair that bounced when he spoke.  At the time I was starting Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace.  I was so inspired by the boy in the YouTube commercial that I gave the main character, Elvis Ruby, the same long curly hair. It became Elvis's trademark.  I wrote to the teacher to thank her and got a lovely email back from the boy's mom, who also just happened to be a middle grade book author. So that's how we met. Talk about a small world. Recently Tamara announced that she had received a two book deal with the publisher Schwartz & Wade!  Her first book, The Marble Boys, comes out in August 2015. 

Here are the questions from the blog tour.

What am I currently working on?

I'm working on a  middle grade novel. The main character is a girl who believes she has a certain psychic power and she doesn't want it at all. The girl has a very strong relationship with her grandparents and I'm really enjoying writing about that part of the story. She is twelve. There is a fourteen year old boy who seems to like her.  This is my first story where there may be a little bit of a romance.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That's a difficult question.  When I'm working on a story, I'm not thinking about genre. My first book was historical fiction. The next one had a tiny bit of magical realism. This one seems to be somewhere between a fantasy and magical realism. One thing they all have in common is that there is always a misfit, a character who clearly doesn't belong. My stories always involve them navigating relationships and having them trying to find their way.

Why do I write what I write?
 I never intentionally set out to write middle grade, but I have noticed that most of my characters are somewhere between the ages of ten to fourteen. I love reading middle grade books. They are fun, often philosophical and always filled with hope and promise. It is such an important time of growth, where kids are taking their first steps into an adult world yet they haven't lost their childhood abilities to imagine and to wonder. 

How does my individual writing process work?
 I wish my process was more of a process. I'm in awe of writers who say they can write outlines or that they always start a certain way. For me, every book is different. It usually starts when I think of a character and then think about how the character would interact with other people. I try to get to know my characters before I even begin to write. Normally I start thinking about them while I'm finishing up a book.
Each book comes out a different way. Neil Armstrong is My Uncle was all about this angry girl. Once I had her voice down, I was able to write. She was loud and determined -- so it was easy to let her run with the story. 
For Hiding Out at The Pancake Palace, I had to write pages of back story before I could understand what was happening. In this current book, I'm writing out of order. When I see a scene, I write it. I'm trying to make sure I understand what the main character is really after. The good thing about writing out of order is that I already have how the story will end.
One thing I know for certain is that I hate first drafts. I love revision.

 Next up on the tour:

Katia Raina 

Katia writes poetry and novels for young adults, while pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I met Katia when she asked to interview me for her blog after my first book came out. By the time the evening was over, we were friends. When it comes to writing, she is fearless. I've learned so much from her. 
Katia has already posted her answers to hop on over to her wonderful blog and see her reply.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Jake celebrates HUM!

Jake is convinced that if you listen hard to a daisy you will hear its secret hum. That's because he's spent the last few months listening to me gush about Tracy Holczer's truly amazing middle grade debut, "The Secret Hum of a Daisy."            
Today HUM goes out into the world!  Congratulations HUM!  And congratulations Tracy!

To find out more about Tracy and her lovely book here's the link to her website.

When we're not listening to daisies here in New Jersey, we will be doing a happy dance to celebrate the special day.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Jake Celebrates the Paperback Release!

The paperback for Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace is out in the world!   Jake cannot control his excitement. Here he is celebrating in that crazy Jake way.

Actually Jake seems to really enjoy books.  He was the first to unwrap my author copies (and he did this while we were all out of the house).  When I got home, the box was opened and all of the copies were transported to Jake's favorite spot under the stairs.

Alas. This wasn't the first time he's done this. He enjoys paperbacks but he's been known to nibble on a hard cover too. Jake likes to sink his teeth into a book. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hiding Out at the Pancake Palace is in Paperback: April 10th


As an author, I'm beginning to notice things about book design that I never saw as a reader. 
Check out the paperback version of Hiding Out At the Pancake Palace.
Notice the information you get from the front cover. At the top is a one sentence teaser that tells what the book is about (I did not come up with this clever one liner.). They also managed to get the "an NPR Best Book of the Year" placed in the top left corner. At the bottom of the cover, there's the title of my other book so that the reader can make that connection. 
And then there are the lovely images. The sunglasses hint that someone is hiding (and they make the book look fun!). Even the blueberries are there for a reason. In Aunt Emily's Pancake Palace and in the Pinelands of New Jersey (where the book takes place) blueberries are important. And how can anyone resist the yummy stack of pancakes with the gooey font of the title melting right over them?   

In the back of the book there's a longer description to give the reader a better feeling for what the book is about and some quotes from the reviews. Sometimes when you put a lot of text into a small space it looks overwhelming.  But not in this case. That is because the quotes from the reviews are served up on white plates with a fork right next to them!  

By the way, those blueberries that are on the back cover are also featured in the beginning page of each chapter.

Thank you Square Fish for making the book look so delicious and for the time, talent and care you put into the design.

The paperback comes out on April 10th!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Toy Trains and a Farm

Here's a video of the toy farm that my mom (who is 87) set up at her place in New Hampshire.  The trains belonged to my mom's dad.  Many of the farm figures did too--although over the decades she added to it.  Every year when I was growing up, we set this up around the tree. Some years were more elaborate than others. One year we had train tracks that went around the entire house. You had to step over them every time you went into a new room. The Christmas tree in the center of the farm is one of my favorite things. It was made during the Great Depression from old scrap metal from a World War I fighter plane.You'll see a thanks at the end of this to my brother and his friend. They're the ones who set up the train board so my mom could arrange her farm. The video was made by my niece.  Enjoy!

Hope whatever holiday you're celebrating is special! Good health and happiness in the new year! 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Yes. I Was Nervous at The Brooklyn Book Festival

I was a panel moderator at the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was called "A Great Big Beautiful World" and was filled with star-studded authors.
In the picture on the left is Sonia Manzano, actress, author of 2013 Pura Belpre Honor Book The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano  and Sesame Street icon. Sonia was the first Maria on Sesame Street and she wrote for that program too.
Next to her is the award-winning and Emmy-nominated screenwriter (of films like Daddy Day Care and The Shaggy Dog) Geoff Rodkey. Geoff is the author of the extremely funny adventure series, The Chronicles of Egg.  
On the far right is Katherine Applegate, the 2013 winner of the John Newbery Medal for the years most distinguished contribution to children's literature. Katherine won for her beloved book, The One and Only Ivan
I'm the one in the crazy-colored scarf. The picture was taken moments before the discussion started.
Here's what I was thinking when the picture was being taken:
The average person runs at about 8 miles per hour (random fact that I know because besides being a writer, I'm also a librarian-and librarians are fountains of odd trivia and random facts)
The location of the Brooklyn Book Festival is about 120 miles from where I live in South Jersey (Google Maps)
Subtract three miles from the average running time because I'm an out-of-shape, middle-aged person. (I'm being generous about my running abilities but let's go with it)
Add in a few hours because I'm not familiar with the borough of Brooklyn and at some point I'd get lost.
Add in a few more hours because even though I've lived in Jersey for seven years, I'd get lost there too.
Estimate that due to adrenaline I could keep running until I got home
And the answer is:
38 hours
That's how long it would have taken for me to be sitting in my living room if I started running for the hills (or in this case the Pinelands of New Jersey).
38 hours is not long at all.
To say I was a awe-struck and nervous about being in the company of such amazing authors, who are creative and talented in so many ways, was an understatement. 
There was no need for nerves.
It turned out to be great fun.
Sonia Manzano gave thoughtful insightful answers.
Goeff Rodkey made the audience laugh.
Katherine Applegate was witty and charming.
Middle graders, who were in the audience, asked most of the questions.
And I'm glad I stayed.

The picture was taken by my editor Nancy Mercado, who is the one who got me the panel moderating gig  (thanks Nancy!)