Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sliding on the Edge: Interview with C Lee McKenzie

When you're reading, do you ever find yourself talking to the characters? That's how I know a book is truly special. C. Lee McKenzie's YA novel Sliding on the Edge is talk-to-able. Okay, I admit it. A few times, I even shouted. But what else can you do when you're watching a character mess up big time and you know the stakes are high, as in matter of life and death?

When her mother abandons her, street hardened teenager, Shawna Stone, is forced to give up her life in Las Vegas and move onto a horse farm with her equally hardened grandmother, Kay Stone. These two have major secrets. Shawna battles her inner demon, a "Monster" who urges her to cut herself and whispers of suicide. Kay's secrets deal with her marriage and her son. A doomed horse, a drifter named Kenny and a handsome farm hand complete the cast. Watching these characters unravel makes for a compelling read, but the real joy comes as they begin to rebuild, proving that even the most battered of humans can find safety and hope through the healing power of love.

I was lucky to read very early versions of this story and knew it was special from the first draft. C. Lee McKenzie is my writing buddy. She's smart, has a great sense of humor and is my go-to person for critiques and advice. Before becoming a full-time writer, Lee worked in academia. She has degrees in linguistics and inter-cultural communication and she's lived all over the world.

So far, our talks have been virtual, but someday Lee and I plan to meet in person and go walking through the California mountains that she calls home. Lee's hobbies are hiking and yoga, so this east coast couch potato is going to have to get in shape to keep up with her.

Here's my interview with Lee.

So Lee, we've been writing buddies for year and have talked A LOT about the trials and tribulations of getting published, but tell me about the good stuff. What's your favorite part about writing?

I thought about your question for a long time and came up with all kinds of favorite parts, but realize there's only so much time and space for this kind of rumination. In no particular order, here are three things I like about writing:

It's a portable, invisible activity. I can write anywhere, anytime without anyone knowing that's what I'm doing. I can be on a plane or at a party, but inside my head I'm noting conversations, manners, interactions. I hope that doesn't sound like I'm spying. I don't think of it like that, but if anyone I know reads this, I'm probably going to hear about what I've just said.

I also love the writers I interact with. They are so creative, so supportive, so the kind of people that I enjoy being in touch with.

The first flash of an idea is the most exciting part of starting a story. I love those first drafts with all their glitches and terrible prose. I liken it to what a sculptor must feel when he spies the perfect piece of stone or wood. Inside is something to coax into existence so others will be able to enjoy or react to it.

What was your favorite childhood book?

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Stockton, was the best teacher I ever had. And I really mean that. I'll never forget those afternoons when she read Mr. Popper's Penguins aloud to us. That is still my all-time favorite kid's book, but I think a lot of that has to do with Mrs. Stockton.

What made you write YA?

I didn't set out to write YA books. I think that snuck up on me. I was writing all kinds of things and suddenly there were Shawna and Kay (my main characters in Sliding on the Edge) talking to me and telling me their stories.

In Sliding on the Edge, you use a duel pov in a unique way. The main character, Shawna, is written in the first person present tense and the grandmother Kay is written in the third person past. How'd you come up with this and why?

Shawna has a rotten past that she needs to leave behind her and when the story begins, she has no future. There is nothing except "now" for Shawna and she has no one she can rely on except herself. I couldn't write about this girl except from her pov in present tense.

Kay spent her youth in the 50's and believed that decade's promise of rewards for hard work and good intentions. At sixty-four her past is regret-filled and she no longer expects anything from the future. She's older with a lot of memories. She lives with the ghosts of those no longer in her life, and that includes her younger self. She is past tense and the more traditional third person pov suited her.

You've moved around a lot and lived in so many interesting places, Hong Kong, San Diego, Laos, Long Island. Did that help you when you wrote about Shawna's adjustment to a new place and a completely different life?

Probably. Not being in one place long enough to fit in when I was young always put me on the outside. For a long time, I felt I was in a very difficult position, then I realized I had a great chance for watching and listening because no one paid any attention to me. What better way to glean writing tibits?

For a native Californian, which place was harder to get used to, Long Island or Laos? (This Long Island girl is very curious)

Well, Long Island was a challenge. You're a clannish group out there. I did make two friends, but still they were suspicious of this Californio. When I was there, we had some kind of 'wild' reputation on your island. I think surfing films had a lot to do with that. Laos? Piece of cake. I was a curiousity at first (blonde, blue-eyed), but the people there didn't hold my different looks against me for very long. They did, however, laugh at me and my miserable attempts at Lao. I couldn't hear those tones let along reproduce them correctly. After a few embarrassing tonal mistakes, I'd resort to pointing.

So it seems that Laos was easier. Hmmm.

What inspires you to write?

I don't know. I just can't imagine not doing it. I guess if pressed, I'd say there are so many stories to tell that I suppose I'm inspired by the opportunity to put some of them down for readers to enjoy.

C. Lee's book is published by Westside Books and is coming out this month. I can't wait to read the final version of her debut YA novel. For more about C Lee, check out her website


cleemckenzie said...

Popping in to Ramble Street to say hi and wow! I'm ready for that hike.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! Lee, I didn't know you were so global! I've ordered your book and am waiting (not very patiently). Congrats from another book buddy.