Today, I am happy to share an interview with the author of Jimmy's Stars, Mary Ann Rodman. She is also the author of Yankee Girl, My Best Friend, Surprise Soup, and First Grade Stinks. You may visit her on the web, here.
Tell us a little about yourself and your road to publication.
I don’t remember when I didn’t want to be a writer. I grew up telling myself my own bedtime stories, and drawing story panels before I could write. I published my first story when I was seven, and I was off and away, entering every writing contest I could find, and writing weekly school columns for the local newspaper from 9th grade through 12th.
With a short detour through the drama world in college, I ultimately became a children’s service librarian in schools, universities and public libraries. I have always had a passion for children’s writing, and over time, I transitioned from writing “deep and bleak” short stories for adults, to writing for the twelve-year-old inside me. (This is one of the few professions where having an immature side is an advantage!)
My writing career really took off when I enrolled in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College. Halfway through my MFA I sold my first book, MY BEST FRIEND (ill. by E. B Lewis, Viking, 2005), although the book that became my creative thesis, YANKEE GIRL (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004) was published first.
What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
Ever the librarian, I love researching my historical fiction novels best. I always have one book that I am actively writing, while I am researching the next one. When I feel that I have covered as much as I need, I begin writing…and usually discover I need some more research! And once I have “finished” the research (it’s never really “finished”), I love the feeling of falling backward in time to the 60’s or the 40’s, and immersing myself in another time and place. (I am currently writing a book that takes place in 1925, and researching one for 1908.)
I find revision with my editors (I have three of them in three different publishing houses) to be both easy and enjoyable. By the time I have reached this point, I have been working on the book for at least two years, and sometimes as much as five. By now I have lived with these characters a long time, and its great to have someone else who can help me go deeper into my story or characters.
The hardest part is hammering out that first draft. I try to remember the E.L. Doctorow line that writing a novel is like making a car journey at night; you can only see as far as your headlights allow you, but you can make an entire journey that way. I allow myself to write out of sequence, to write whatever is clear to me at the moment, and skip was it not. I know that when I come back around to that scene or chapter or character again, it will be there. But I do not allow myself to go back to anything until the first draft is done.
Some days it feels like flying…and others like shoveling coal.
What inspired you to write Jimmy’s Stars? (Or how did this novel come to be…) This book has been through a couple of incarnations. It began as the first book I ever COMPLETED, twenty five years ago. It was terrible, but I held on to it because the characters were based on family stories and letters from WWII…and I had done all that research. Then I recycled one of the chapters into a picture book. That didn’t work either, but an editor who saw it said “I love these characters. Why don’t you turn this into a middle grade novel?” This time I found a story for them that worked. I guess it was bubbling on the back burner of my mental stove for the last twenty five years.
Do you have a favorite character, a favorite scene, a favorite quote? From my own books? I can give you a million from other people’s work! Seriously, if you do mean from JIMMY’S STARS, I like the scene where the neighborhood kids are playing “Commando Kelly.” Not only was Commando Kelly a real person, a Medal of Honor winner from Pittsburgh’s Northside, but twenty years later, when I was a child, we STILL played Commando Kelly, “shooting” Nazis at the town picnic park. That scene was straight out of my own early ‘60’s life, when we still “played war.”
Music plays (at least from my perspective) a big role in the novel—so far as providing context and emotional background—what songs are on Ellie’s playlist? As the author, what guided you to choose certain songs and artists over others? Thank you for noticing!
I grew up in a household where music played during all my waking hours…my mother with her Tijuana Brass and Perry Como, and my dad at night with classical music. I have lived my life with a soundtrack in my head, and I always write first drafts with music from the time period playing over and over. For JIMMY’S STARS I listened to a lot of vintage Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and early Sinatra, as well as a collection from the Smithsonian of “propaganda music”…some really awful stuff like “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap. I also had some compilations with titles like SONGS THAT HELPED US WIN THE WAR.
What would be on Ellie’s playlist? (What a fun question!) She was a big fan of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” until she heard Toots sing it! She’s a little young to be a bobbysoxer, so while she can appreciate Sinatra, he is really more Sal’s obsession. Ellie does NOT like Bing Crosby, as you can probably tell. Ellie is more of Glenn Miller girl…the peppier songs like “Little Brown Jug”, “In the Mood”, “Tuxedo Junction”. Her favorites are “Pennsylvania 6-500” (of course!) and “American Patrol”. She shies away from the ballads and sad songs if she can help it.
Why did I pick certain songs? Beats me! No, really, my mother and aunts were always singing these old songs around the house when I was kid, even though none of them could carry a tune in a bucket. Ellie’s embarrassment over Jimmy’s bursting into song echoed my own when my mother went around singing “Mairzy Oats” and “Three Little Fishies” and “The Hut Sut Song.” My mother had a silly streak a mile wide, and I gave it to Jimmy in his love of nonsense songs. And the first time I heard “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” I knew that was practically Toots’ theme song.
What do you hope readers gain from reading Jimmy’s Stars?
I don’t write with an “agenda” in mind. I am usually writing for myself, or at least that inner twelve-year-old. I began writing this book (the third time!) around the time of the Iraq invasion, and I was meeting kids whose lives were being turned upside down by war.
I want kids to know that kids during WWII experienced some of the same emotions and situations that they are today. And that love and courage and memory triumph death and evil.
You have a great first line—in my opinion—“The two people Ellie McKelvey hated most were Adolf Hitler and Victoria Gandeck.” Did this line come easily or did you struggle with getting it just right?
Boy did I struggle! The first line is the most important…and usually it’s the last thing I write. My husband (who has a very short attention span) always lets me know if the first line doesn’t “grab him.” After about a dozen false starts, matched with a dozen “You can do betters” from my spouse, I finally snapped and yelled the most over-the-top opening I could think of. Which became that first line!
What was your first impression of the cover art for Jimmy’s Stars?
I love this cover because I pretty much told the art department at FSG EXACTLY what I wanted on the cover. I think it gives the impression of hopefulness and melancholy, without giving away the story.
How do you find time—do you find time—to keep reading? Do you have any favorites of the year? Oh yes, I’m a compulsive reader…in the carpool line, while I sit through my daughter’s figure skating lessons, at very long red lights. My big indulgence is subscribing to Publisher’s Weekly so I can keep track of who is publishing what.
I just finished MAO’S LAST DANCER by Cunxin Li, an autobiography, only realizing toward the end of the book that I saw him dance in the International Ballet Competition in Mississippi twenty or so years ago. I also enjoyed Andrea Cheng’s WHERE THE STEPS WERE, a multi-voice verse novel (that 1925 book I mentioned is a verse novel with three voices), BENEATH MY MOTHER’S FEET by Amjed Qamar, KEEPING SCORE by Linda Sue Park. I have BIRD LAKE MOON by Kevin Henkes (a writer who has never written a false line, IMHO) at the top of my “to read” stack. At the insistence of every adolescent I have had in my writing workshops this summer, I also have the FIRST Stephanie Meyer book in that pile as well. Anything that can make a twelve year old keep track of the number of hours until a book’s publication has to be worth my time!
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
Spend a day talking to Anne Frank. She was my earliest writing role model, and as a young teen, I literally read my paperback copy of DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL to shreds. I want to know how she kept her optimism and idealism in a time when such emotions (or any other emotions) were a luxury. Minus the time machine aspect, I would like to simply visit her attic in Amsterdam. My mother has been there, my husband has been there…but I haven’t. It is the one place I want to go that I have never been.
For more on Mary Ann Rodman and her book Jimmy's Stars, visit:
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Saturday Review of Books: November 29, 2014
18 minutes ago