Wednesday, December 8, 2010

SCRAWL by Mark Shulman

Tod Munn is a bully. He's tough, but times are even tougher. The wimps have stopped coughing up their lunch money. The administration is cracking down. Then to make things worse, Tod and his friends get busted doing something bad. Something really bad.

Lucky Tod must spend his daily detention in a hot, empty room with Mrs. Woodrow, a no-nonsense guidance counselor. He doesn't know why he's there, but she does. Tod's punishment: to scrawl his story in a beat-up notebook. He can be painfully funny and he can be brutally honest. But can Mrs. Woodrow help Tod stop playing the bad guy before he actually turns into one . . . for real?

Read Tod's notebook for yourself.

And join us in welcoming Mark Shulman to the Cafe!

Melissa: Tell us about your book, Scrawl.

Scrawl is the story of Tod Munn, a tough kid from a bad neighborhood. And he’s in big trouble. The book is a journal he’s been forced to write as a condition of his not going to the juvie.

Everyone thinks they’ve figured Tod out – he’s supposed to be a bully and a thug and a budding criminal -- and he likes that they’ve got it wrong. Every day after school, he’s stuck with a guidance counselor who sees something in Tod that is actually right. He’s smart, and clever, and funny… all liabilities in Tod’s world.

As Tod goes through the short time period of the book, he is forced to reckon with his gang of friends, setting a path for himself that will either lead to bigger trouble or redemption. It sounds so grim, but it’s actually quite funny.

Melissa: What was your inspiration for this story?

A writer and an editor conspired to make me write a novel, but they weren’t in cahoots. The writer, Alison James, put me and a few others through a writing exercise that ended with my hypnotically-induced scribblings in the voice of Tod. Not long after, the editor Neal Porter more or less challenged me to write a novel. And when Neal Porter says “write a novel,” a writer listens. So I did.

Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?
Not only are they the same, but they were barely edited. I figured out how to put them in the front of the book. You meet Tod at the point I met Tod – while he’s busting some kid’s glasses in my old high school. But he’s detached, almost sanguine as he considers the finer points of beating a kid up.

What kind of research did you have to do for this story?
I closed my eyes and thought about the layout of my old high school. Seeing how I spent six highly-formative years there, it was easy to set the stage. Having a fundamental blueprint of the school made all the difference in what’s where and how to get there. One other tool was Google Calendar. Since the book is told entirely in journal form, the days and dates had to click. The book is set on the same calendar as 2010.

Melissa: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

For me, writing is like one of those huge science-museum soap bubbles you pull up with a hoop. A number of circumstances need to be in place – the environment, the lack of interference, and steady focus on my part. Of course, when I’m crushing under deadline, all I need is some coffee and another hour.

Melissa What one question do you wish an interviewer would ask you but never has?

“Is the female lead, Luz, based on a real person?”

None of my characters are real people. Some are composite and some are entirely fictional. Luz the artsy goth girl is a favorite of mine because she muscled her way into the book far more than I expected. She was supposed to have a bit part, but she and Tod started talking and there were sparks. Not romantic sparks. More like the pre-romantic way two teenagers might use each other as knife-sharpening wheels. In their particular public school, there isn’t so much high intellectual wattage. So despite themselves, they’re drawn together. That’s why she promoted herself from a supporting role in one scene to a lead role in several.

Hey – I didn’t answer my own question! Luz is a composite of a few girls I knew in school. But she’s also quite a work of fiction.

Melissa: What are you working on now?

Several projects at once. I’ve finished an early reader. And a picture book. And I’m in the middle of a fun nonfiction title. And I’m fleshing out the next novel, which is in outline at the moment. And there’s another book opportunity that might be too good to pass up. And I’m volunteering in a few places, which always requires more time than I budget for. I’m an involved parent in my kids’ school, and I often pick up. And I’m married. And I do the laundry. And I read a lot. That’s about it.

Melissa: Tell us something about you that no one knows.

I’ve got an O- blood type, which makes me the universal pincushion. What’s more, my blood hasn’t got antigens, so even fragile recipients won’t reject it. That makes me extremely desirable, hematologically. So I give blood as often as I can. We O- folks have to stick together. So go out there and give it up.

Melissa How did you become a writer?

I got an old Royal manual typewriter for my 11th or 12th birthday. I’ve been at it ever since. In high school I wrote comics and a sci-fi magazine, and parodies of the school paper I would publish and sell. I’ve written advertising, tours, bad TV scripts, worse stand-up comedy, positioning papers, more advertising, CEO speeches, radio contests, a very funny menu for a hot dog restaurant in the garment district, cover letters, corporate videos, poems, apologies to traffic court judges, and anything even remotely resembling advertising. Then I met a wonderful schoolteacher, married her, and started to write books for kids. Those include picture books, nonfiction, preschool, novelty, movie tie-ins, TV tie-ins, books with glowing monster heads, voodoo dolls, trivia quizzes, humor, celebrity picture books, quote books, books with snails that slide around the page, and a novel.

Melissa What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

“I like reading. It’s free travel.”

Melissa: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Oh,yes. There’s a part about one-third of the way when Tod is going to make a defining choice. It’s one of those early winter afternoons when the weather is oobleck and the sky is prematurely dark and he does NOT want to be in this place making this choice to be a good guy or bad guy. So he is standing outside a door and he freezes up. And so did I. I hated the moment as much as he did. Then the phone rang and it was Discovery Channel with a bunch of projects and I took them all. Many moons later I picked up the book again, having received a piece of invaluable advice: Write the part after this scene, and then come back to it. How simple! And how very, very effective.

Melissa What's on your nightstand right now?

The Pullman trilogy, which I’m reading aloud to my daughter… Holes, which I read every so often for clues… Mockingjay, because I read the other two… a handful of mythology books, which my son loves… various issues of the Ultimate Spider-Man series… The New Yorker, because I’ve been reading it for 35 years and I’m only 48… and a lamp.

Melissa: Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

New York City, jazz, architecture, history, going on drives. And my family. We’re a tight group.

Melissa: What are your hobbies?

New York City, jazz, architecture, history, going on drives. And my family. Also, every two years, I follow politics the way other guys follow sports.

Melissa: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

Yes. Because it’s hard. And then when it isn’t, I don’t want to quit.

Melissa: If you could be anything else besides a writer, what would it be?

I imagine I’d like to be designing things. My mind is always at work improving on backpacks, carts, kitchen set-ups, lamps, toys, car accessories and room layouts. I’m especially keen on inventing all-new, multi-purpose objects. I don’t think there’s a living in that, though.


As a regular feature of the Cafe, Mark will be available to answer your questions over the next week. So drop by the comments and leave him a question or just throw some confetti!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interview with Robin Benway, author of THE EXTRAORDINARY SECRETS OF APRIL, MAY AND JUNE

Marlene:Tell us about your book.

Robin:My most current book is “The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June”, about 3 sisters who discover they have superpowers after their parents divorce: April can see the future, May becomes invisible, and June can read minds. I thought, “What would be worse than having your little sister be able to read your mind?!” and the rest of the superpowers unfolded from there.

Marlene: What was your inspiration for this story?

Robin: I saw a tattoo on a male model, the words “April May June” written across his collarbones in this beautiful script. My first thought was, “Oh my God, those are sisters,” and it wasn't until later that I thought, “Oh, and they're months of the year, too.” I figured I should find out who those sisters were.

Marlene: Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

Robin: The first scene I wrote for the book was when May drives a car for the first time and ends up disappearing while behind the wheel, causing havoc on the road and with her sisters. It was a much more serious scene than what appears in the book now, but it helped me figure out the sisters' personalities and how they interacted with one another.

Marlene:What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Robin:Very little, actually! It's sort of difficult to research superpowers, and I really wanted to stay away from the typical superhero story, with villains and whatnot. I love those kinds of stories, but I wanted the focus to be on the girls' lives and how what makes them different is what makes them special.

Marlene: What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

Robin:“I hugged my sisters and they fit against my sides like two jigsaw pieces that would never fit anywhere else. I couldn’t imagine ever letting them go again, like releasing them would be to surrender the best parts of myself.”
It was one of the first sentences I wrote, without knowing who would say it, or why they would be so desperate to hug their sisters, and I think it helped me set up the plot of the book. I liked this phrase so much that I needed to fit it into the storyline!

Marlene: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Robin:There's a scene where May and her father have a phone conversation that was exceptionally difficult for me to write. I knew both of them would be upset after it and I didn't want to do that to May, but it had to be done. Sorry, May.

Marlene:What's on your nightstand right now?

Robin:Right now, I have “Matched” by Ally Condie, “Across the Universe” by Beth Revis, “One Day” by David Nicholls, “Decoded” by Jay-Z, and about a million back issues of magazines. I really want to get the Keith Richards biography and the Mark Twain autobiography, too, but I'm pacing myself.

Marlene:Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

Robin:I'm sort of obsessed with music and I even have a Song of the Day blog called The Songs that Saved Your Life ( I'll listen to anything and I love going to concerts and seeing live music. The character of Audrey from my first book, “Audrey, Wait!”, and I are very similar in that way. We're both music junkies.

Marlene: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

Robin:At least once a day. Seriously. I love it, but I either psych myself out or get frustrated by a sentence that doesn't work and I start thinking about 9 to 5 jobs again. And right when I'm ready to delete everything, the sentence works and I remember why I like writing so much. It can be an incredibly frustrating job at times, but it's worth it. Sometimes ten words strung together make it worth it.

Questions or comments for Robin? Feel free to leave her a message in the comments and she will check in throughout the next week.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

And the Winnah Is.......

InspiredKathy is the winner of a copy of Ellen Jensen Abbott's wonderful fantasy novel Watersmeet! Congratulations to InspiredKathy and thank you to everyone who entered!

Please check back for more fun, interactive interviews and future giveaways!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview and Giveaway with Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of Watersmeet

Join us in welcoming author Ellen Jensen Abbott to the YA Authors Cafe! And stick around for a chance to win a copy of Ellen's wonderful debut novel, Watersmeet!

Melissa: Tell us about your newest book?

Ellen: Watersmeet is the story of Abisina, an outcast in her home village, who flees those who want to kill her to find the father she’s never met. On her journey, she is rescued by dwarves, kidnapped by centaurs, contacted by a ghost, and aided by a mysterious necklace.

Melissa: What was the inspiration for this story?

Ellen: There were many! I was a big reader of fantasy when I was a tween and young adult, and I still read the genre as much as I can. Naturally, when Abisina’s story started to spin out in my head, it was a fantasy. I love monsters and creatures and magic and mythology. I have a lot of fun playing around with the possibilities that such otherworldly ideas present.

But I was also intrigued by a conversation I had with a dear friend who came out to me as a gay man after years of friendship. In our following conversations, he talked about the homophobia he carried with him and this really surprised me. It sounds silly to say now, but I had never thought about prejudices we are taught and hang on to, even when we are the objects of that prejudice. Watersmeet is not about homophobia, but it does explore the question of letting go of one’s prejudice, even when one has been deeply injured by that prejudice.

Finally, the setting of Watersmeet is inspired by the years I spent growing up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In some ways, Watersmeet is set in New Hampshire—but it is New Hampshire as I saw it as a kid: the mountains are bigger, the water is colder, the sky is bluer. When I go back to visit, I can still catch glimpses of that place.

Melissa: What are you working on now?

Ellen: The sequel, of course! The continuation of Abisina’s adventures, tentatively titled The Centaur’s Daughter, is scheduled for a Fall 2011 release with Marshall Cavendish. I just turned in my first big round of revisions and am waiting to hear back from my editor. I also sent in a larger, expanded version of the map that appears in Watersmeet and can’t wait to see what the artist will do with it!

Melissa: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Ellen: Invention. There is definite fun in this part of the process as you get to know your characters and your setting and the conflicts that will drive the story, but this is also when I have to work the hardest. I write pages and pages of exploratory writing—often thinking that “I’m on my way,” only to discover that I took a wrong turn back there around chapter 3! I almost always know where I want to start and where I want to end, but making my way through the uncharted middle can be difficult. Unlike some writers, I adore revision. That’s when I feel like I really get to practice craft and pull the story from the tangle of threads I’ve created. I cut, cut, cut and love seeing the sleeker lines emerge.

Melissa: Have you ever wanted to quit writing?

Ellen: There have been many times when I’ve thrown my hands up and asked myself why I do this to myself? Why do I keep struggling with these characters who I made up but still won’t listen to me?! I may have even tried to quit once or twice, but it was quickly clear to me that writing isn’t really a choice. Those characters find you whether your sitting at your keyboard or not. For better or for worse, I’m a writer. I am happier when I’m writing regularly. Often, when I’ve just finished a big project, I stop writing for a few weeks while I dig myself out of the hole I’ve created by ignoring bills, house cleaning, and laundry. Invariably, the time away extends longer than I anticipated—mostly because I dig very big holes. Then inertia sets in, I’m out of practice, and it is easier and easier to say, “Oh, I’ll work on that story tomorrow.” I get grumpy. My family starts avoiding me. Finally it will hit me: I need to write! Even a sentence or two. Pretty soon, I’m back in it—pulling my hair out over misbehaving characters—and much happier.

Melissa: I can completely relate! (And so can my family.) What is on your nightstand right now?

Ellen: An eclectic mix! The Secret Year, by Jennifer R. Hubbard, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett, and Stranded by JT Dutton.

Melissa: Ellen, thank you for visiting us at the Cafe! For more information on Ellen and her books, visit

Questions or comments for Ellen? Feel free to leave her a message in the comments and she will check in throughout the next week.

BONUS! Everyone who leaves a question or comment for Ellen will automatically be entered to win a copy of Watersmeet! Make sure you include a working e-mail address so we can contact you if you are the lucky winner!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Interview with Holly Cupala, author of Tell Me a Secret

Marlene: Tell us about your book:

Holly: It’s been five years since Miranda’s bad-girl sister disappeared into the night and died in a mysterious crash. Five years of holding her family together – her drama-obsessed mother, her disappearing father. In just one year, she will escape to college on the arm of her boyfriend, Kamran, and disappear herself. Until then, she has a new best friend with the keys to unlock her sister’s secret world.
But now Miranda has a secret of her own…two lines on the pregnancy test that will shatter everything she hopes for—and may even show a way into her own future.

Marlene: What was your inspiration for this story?

Holly: A very hard year—two losses that changed my life. After that, my writing didn’t have much meaning. Then one day, the idea for Tell Me a Secret landed in my lap, and I just started writing. Notes, at first. With the encouragement of many writing friends, I got up the courage to write the book.

Marlene: Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

Holly: Vividly! Only because it was 3 a.m. I had a tiny baby who had just fallen asleep, and at that point I was so sleep-deprived that I should definitely not have been operating machinery…when the first line hit me. It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl. I knew if I didn’t get up to write it down, Miranda might never speak to me again! So I got up and wrote the passage that in now the first few pages in the novel.

Marlene: What kind of research did you have to do for this story?

Holly: Much of it was experiential. Beyond that, I talked to friends, professionals, rocket scientists…
Even in a contemporary story, there are a million details that must be investigated. The hospital scenes were crucial, and I had some terrific consultants on those. I’ve heard from readers who have had similar experiences—it means a great deal to me that they thought I captured her story in a true and meaningful way.

Marlene: What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

Holly: Line: probably the first.

Passage, from Chapter 10, after the breakup:
Nothing I knew about Xanda prepared me for this. She left no roadmap for rejection…I had tried to pour Kamran into myself, filling those tunnels of despair left over from Xanda with tendrils of hopefulness, the way being with Andre seemed to fill my sister with a kind of tempered steel. Now that Kamran had forcibly ripped them out, I was reeling from emptiness.

Chapter: the Halloween party. I love love love the Q-tips scene! That was a lot of fun to write. Plus I was able to include my favorite word, palimpsest.

Marlene: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Holly: Me, avoid?? Uh, yes. The ultimate showdown chapter. In fact I pretty much skipped it through the first draft, only writing notes. I knew it would be a critical convergence of secrets and reality, and that we had to come out of it with some kind of resolution. Dialogue is probably the hardest ingredient for me, so I had to really wrestle with what Miranda and the primary villain would say…and in the process, realized the villain had so many secret reasons for her behavior throughout the novel. I hated every minute of it until the pieces finally fell into place!

Marlene:What's on your nightstand right now?

Holly: A giant pile. But I’ll give you the ones at the top: The Clearing, by Heather Davis; Stolen, by Lucy Christopher; Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White. So little time, so much to read…

Marlene: Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

Holly: Like Miranda, I am an artist—though I love to paint and collage (labyrinths are way too exacting for me). The engraving of a medieval pregnant girl which Miranda avoids in Chapter 5 is actually from one of my paintings. I also love to do all kinds of crafty stuff and have a running DIY Friday series on my blog.

Marlene: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

Holly: Absolutely. After our loss, I honestly couldn’t see the purpose in writing. Much of what I’d written up to that point had been to please other people, not really delving into anything true. But many encouraging friends wouldn’t let me quit, and they were a tide that lifted me and the story all along the way. And that experience stripped away all of the fears I had about writing something deep and scary. I wonder now if that was part of the process, to get to the story I was meant to write.

Thank you so much, Marlene and Melissa and Mary, for inviting me to YA Authors Café! I have such admiration for all of you and am very excited to be here.

For more information about Holly and her books visit her website at

Readers, now it’s your turn. Ask a question! Leave a comment. Holly will pop back in for one week to respond. You’re up!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A BLUE SO DARK by Holly Schindler

After obtaining her master’s in English back in 2001, Holly Schindler decided to nix the idea of getting a full-time job in favor of pursuing a writing career, her lifelong dream. She says, “After wearing out a half-dozen or so keyboards drafting far too many manuscripts to count…after revising and submitting and revising again…after seven and a half years of rejections…I sold my first novel, a YA titled A BLUE SO DARK, to Flux!” In addition to her debut novel, Holly sold two more books that will be forthcoming in 2011!

The buzz for A BLUE SO DARK:

"Breathtakingly, gut-wrenchingly authentic...A haunting, realistic view of the melding of art, creativity, and mental illness and their collective impact on a young person’s life."
—Booklist, starred review

“A Blue So Dark is one of those rare books: It never shies away from the darkness yet still manages to find the light. A truly real, emotional, and honest read.”
—Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward and Love in the Present Tense

“Schindler’s lyrical debut explores the nightmare of mental illness in a voice that is sharp and funny and all her own. This is as real as teen fiction gets. A must-read.”
—Crissa-Jean Chappell, author of Total Constant Order

“A Blue So Dark is a raw, compelling and eloquent portrayal of art and madness, and the freeing, healing gift of creativity. Schindler's voice is brilliant and true.”
—Carrie Jones, New York Times bestselling author of Need and Captivate

Congratulations on your debut and the awesome reviews, Holly! Welcome to the Café! Let’s get started . . .

Mary: Tell us about your newest book, A BLUE SO DARK.

Holly: In short, A BLUE SO DARK follows a young girl’s attempts to care for her schizophrenic mother (an artist and art teacher), while fearing that her own artistic ability is an indicator that she, too, will become mentally unstable.

Here’s the jacket copy, which offers a little more detail:

"Fifteen-year-old Aura Ambrose has been hiding a secret. Her mother, a talented artist and art teacher, is slowly being consumed by schizophrenia, and Aura has been her sole caretaker ever since Aura’s dad left them. Convinced that “creative” equals crazy, Aura shuns her own artistic talent. But as her mother sinks deeper into the darkness of mental illness, the hunger for a creative outlet draws Aura toward the depths of her imagination. Just as desperation threatens to swallow her whole, Aura discovers that art, love, and family are profoundly linked—and together may offer an escape from her fears."

Mary: It sounds like a gut-wrenching book to write. Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?

Holly: I remember writing the scene in the kitchen, which appears in chapter 1: Aura making a sandwich for her mother, who’s already beginning a descent into madness.

But as I rewrote and rewrote, the mermaids (driftwood carvings that were always hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen) began to feature more dominantly in the book. The last things I wrote were the prologue and epilogue (which both take place in Florida). I really love the bookends they put on the novel. With Aura being in the same physical place at the beginning and end of the book, it kind of forces readers to consider the EMOTIONAL place she’s in at the novel’s start and at the novel’s end.

Mary: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Holly: First draft. I think most readers assume that the first draft is the fun part—the discovery part, the time when an author’s imagination can run wild. But I really dislike the first draft. It’s sort of painful for me to have to start from scratch.

Revision? I ADORE revision. I feel much, MUCH better when I get something DOWN to work with.

Mary: I'm right there with you on revision. That’s when the fun starts.

Holly: The thing is, I love a book that’s layered. A book that has multiple dimensions. And I think a book gets layered with successive rewrites. Every single time an author goes back, she (or he) adds a new subplot. Or a secondary character that forces the protagonist to reveal another dimension of their personality. Or a simple turn-of-events that notches up the tension in what can so often be the saggy mid-section of a book.

When I’m writing that first draft, it seems so…two-dimensional to me. But once I start to go back, start to add in all those layers, and my book starts to come alive? THAT’S when my juices REALLY start flowing.

Mary: Do you work on more than one book at a time?

Holly: I ALWAYS have another book in the works. I’ve got a towering stack of manuscripts that I drafted in my pre-acceptance period, which now need to be revised and resubmitted. And, of course, there are the two books that are still in development. I know…to go from no publications to THREE in one year…I was incredibly lucky.

New ideas for novels pop up all the time. Drafting one project, I’ll get ideas for half a dozen additional books! When ideas pop into my head, I jot down whatever’s just come to me—a character sketch, a premise, a basic outline—then try to put it aside so that I can finish my task at hand. That also means I have a stack of notebooks FILLED with ideas for books! Honestly, once I finish a project, it's kind of hard to decide which idea / outline I want to tackle next. (What a fantastic dilemma, right?)

Mary: Yes, that is one great dilemma to have! What three things are always on your desk?

Holly: Confession time: I have a tendency to be a little bit of a slob while drafting. But I also tend to really want to tidy everything up while I’m revising! So my desk can either look totally cluttered or completely clean and dust-free, depending on what stage my writing’s in.

Three constants, through either clutter or clean, are a cup of hot coffee (cream, no sugar), my dog, Jake (who’s usually UNDER the desk or the nearby couch), and my glasses. (I’m totally blind—20/700 vision! So if I want to completely turn off my inner critic, I take my glasses off and type away. If I can’t SEE it, I can’t second-guess it!)

Mary: I love this! It’s a great way to tame that annoying internal critic.

Readers, now it’s your turn. Ask a question! Leave a comment! Holly will pop back in for one week to respond to questions and comments.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Operation Book Drop

From Readergirlz website:

In 2008 and 2009, readergirlz (, Guys Lit Wire (, and YALSA ( orchestrated publishers' donations of nearly 20,000 new young adult books to hospitalized teens across the country.

For 2010, If I Can Read I Can Do Anything ( has joined forces with these three organizations to drop over 10,000 new YA books, donated by publishers, into the hands of teens on Native American tribal lands. Nationwide, librarians, over 100 YA authors, and teens will drop YA books in their own communities on April 15th, 2010, to raise awareness for Operation TBD 2010 and Support Teen Literature Day. Everyone will join an online TBD Post-Op party at 6 PM PST / 9 PM EST that evening at the readergirlz blog (

So Rock the Drop!