Angela, thank you for this interview. I was first introduced to your writing when I read your award winning Middle Grade novel The Safest Lie. It’s a wonderful read for all ages. I’ve given this novel as a gift half a dozen times, most recently to teachers in Montreal looking for quality fiction to use for teaching history. You have also published The End of the Line, which is the story of a 13-year-old boy unable to come to terms with his role in his friend’s death. It begs the question…
- Why do you write what you do?
That’s the question, isn’t it?! It is clear that I write about identity. I also tend to focus on serious subjects. Like many writers, my stories almost always start with a character, a character in trouble. Really, this is more of a situation than an actual plot. Plot comes later for me.
Side Note: I didn’t know the difference between situation and plot until I had the good fortune to learn from the amazing Cynthia Omololu. She explained this to me, along with a lot of other important writing lessons, when we were in a critique group together.
Another Side Note: if you haven’t read Cynthia’s novels, (https://www.amazon.com/Cynthia-Jaynes-Omololu/e/B002HD8MV2) I highly recommend them.
The character of Anna in The Safest Lie consumed my thoughts after reading a magazine article about Irena Sendler. As you may know, Irena Sendler rescued children from the Warsaw ghetto. She is such an inspiring person and I wanted to learn all I could about her. Even as I learned more details of the child rescues, one question never left me: “What was life like for all those children?”
- Can you share with us what you’re working on now, and what made you want to write that story?
I’m working on a middle grade novel with a hint of magical realism. This story inspires me because –you guessed it—I’m so intrigued by this character. Her goals are impossible, but she dreams big and is so determined.
- In both books, I am taken with your ability to take difficult subject matter and make it accessible for younger readers. Could you talk a bit about your choice to write for a Middle Grade v. a YA audience?
I like reading all kinds of fiction and non-fiction, but it is true that my writing takes on serious subjects for younger readers. I think I have a middle-grade mind. That’s where my imagination, perspective and actual sentences seem to meld and make something happen. Although The End of the Line is considered YA due to subject matter, it is a hi-lo book and the reading level is much younger. I don’t think I actually choose an audience. Instead I choose a character. Depending on what unfolds in that character’s story determines the audience. Your publisher will know the best market for your books, they are the experts. I believe writers can relax about where their book fits along the MG – YA (or even NA) continuum.
- You lead a very busy life, Angela. You’re a mom, you work full time, you volunteer as the Assistant International Advisor for the SCBWI, and you live overseas, which brings its own set of daily challenges. Can you speak about balancing writing time with the other demands in your life?
I don’t get everything done, that’s for sure. I don’t even try. My family and my work are important to me. My volunteer duties are too. In addition to SCBWI, I volunteer at our community theatre and I’m on the board of Children Helping Children, a group of children and music makers who raise money to support an orphanage in China. Every writer struggles with balance, regardless of work or family situation. I think it’s important as writers (everyone really) not to be too hard on ourselves. We need to know our limits and take time to interact with the world, with nature, with family, friends and strangers. If going for a run, taking a long walk, cooking (or burning) dinner means that the house won’t get clean or the writing won’t get done that day, that’s life. And you know what? Life is an important ingredient in writing. When I was working on The End of the Line, I was commuting 1.5 hours to and from work. I tried text-to speech and even recording my thoughts, but it just didn’t flow. There were days when my schedule was too crowded for even 15 minutes of writing. During that time, it was important to keep my characters in my thoughts. Even though I didn’t get my butt in the chair and write, I could think while doing other chores like picking out groceries, standing in line or pumping gas. I tried to see these things through the eyes of the two boys in the novel. I’d ask myself, “What would Ryan think of this car (or person, coat, sandwich, whatever)?” “How would Robbie describe ______?” It wasn’t writing, but it helped. I don’t have an easy answer for the work / life / writing balance –who does? I am someone who needs a lot of thinking time for each project. So, in my own way, I feel like I’m working on the story even when I’m not adding to my word count.
- I noticed you have several events coming in 2017 including leading a workshop in Amsterdam, Characters in Peril. What can writers expect if they attend the workshop?
Yes, 2017 is going to be an exciting year. I’m looking forward to SCBWI’s Europolitan Conference in Belgium and presenting at AFCC, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content as well as starting the year off with the Writer’s Workshop in Amsterdam. This workshop is a “beyond the basics” class for writers who are already working on a novel or picture book. We’re going to solve the mystery of voice for starters and move on to tension and emotions. There will be time for discussion, studying manuscripts and writing. Also on the agenda is an entirely new way to look at relationships. My goal is that by the end of the workshop participants will know with authority the strengths in their manuscripts and how to build on those strengths as they prepare for submission. I’m excited that children’s literary agent, Linda Camacho will present a webinar about working with a literary agent. (She’s also giving critiques!)
- Do you have any advice for writers of children’s fiction?
I’m not sure if this will be helpful to other writers, but I’m trying something new with my current revision. I’m challenging myself to tone things down. By this I mean that I won’t introduce a shiny new object or extreme character every five pages. I will cut away excess and distraction in order to focus. With this intention I hope the slow build up (or disintegration) of relationships can take shape on the page organically, between characters. It is my intention that with more focus and less external conflict, I can dig deeper into the internal and interpersonal conflicts. This is challenging me to know my characters better, to sit with them longer and to give each of them more time. This version of the novel feels new again. Not in an easy way, but in a way that is a little bit frightening and difficult. The sentences aren’t coming as quickly and there’s fewer of them for now, but I’m determined to stick with it and keep trying.
Something that has helped me with all of my writing (novels and plays) is the advice of people I trust. Find a person or a few people you trust to read your manuscript and challenge you on it. Ask them to read critically, to examine every thread, every step of the story, every emotion. And (this is the most important part) listen, really listen, and respect their input.
You can find Angela at:
Post your list on Readers Words http://www.angelacerrito.com/readers-words
Check out Angela’s very neglected blog Collecting My Thoughts