Monday, June 09, 2008

Interview with Annette Laing

A few weeks ago I read DON'T KNOW WHERE, DON'T KNOW WHEN by Annette Laing. I really really enjoyed it! And I thought it would be wonderful to get a chance to ask her a few questions about her book and her writing process. Luckily, she agreed to be interviewed. So enjoy!

What inspired you to write Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When?

In 2004, I started TimeShop, a one-day program in which kids (8-12) and college students (in costume and character) all pretended to go to England during World War Two. Kids moved in groups among rooms in which they shopped, ate, played, went to school, and saw movies as though in a small town in 1940. It was totally self-indulgent, and I only planned to do it once: I actually had no idea if kids from rural South Georgia would get into playing English evacuees. But they did, in a huge way, and we all had a blast. When the hideous bureaucracy at my university made the program unworkable (despite huge support form the community and a very nice article by the AP), I suspended it. But I kept thinking, suppose it really happened? Suppose these kids actually did travel in time? And that’s why I wrote the book.

How long did it take to write and see it through to the finished product?

It’s a total cliché to say this, and I’m sorry about that, but it’s taken me 43 years to write this book. I’m an academic historian who studies early America and its cultural relationship with Britain. I was born in Scotland, raised in England, and spent 14 years in California. I’ve been in rural Georgia for 12 years now. Everything somehow played into the book. I just hope it doesn’t take this long to write the next one!

Oh, all right, here’s the bottom line: I plotted Don’t Know Where in summer ’06, and, that fall, raided my retirement account to take an unpaid leave of absence from my job as a history professor so I could write it. Ironically, I was able to get the book done so fast because I had a freak complication from surgery on a severely twisted ankle, and wound up with a pulmonary embolism (two weeks in hospital, much of it editing with my laptop at nose level), followed by medical leave for the rest of the term (write, write, write.) The book came out in mid-August, 2007. I now regard a major illness as an essential component of finishing books: I’m battling cancer (successfully) while I write Book 2. After all, who needs hair to write? Seriously, illness has a wonderful way of focusing the mind.

Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way?

My husband, Bryan, whose patience with his crazy wife is truly miraculous. But I want to give a shout –out to Drs. Cathy Skidmore-Hess, Michelle Haberland, and Laura Shelton, all historians, mothers, and YA fans, who are my best and most stringent critics and editors. They never hesitate to tell me when something sucks, for which I’m incredibly grateful. And when they tell me they like something, I know I can trust their judgments.

Do you have a favorite character? A favorite scene?

Most people, including my friends, assume I identify most closely with the bratty Hannah, which I do a bit. But my favorite kid character is Brandon. He regards the town in which he’s grown up as a backwater, and he wants to leave, see the world, and do something with his life. However, he’s not at all ruthless: In Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, he comes to the fore as a mature, decent and compassionate person, which is how I’d like to think of myself. He also has quite a bit of self-doubt, and that is something I’ll be exploring in the second book in the series. Personally, I think self-doubt is an important part of good character, which is not how it’s currently seen. Pity.

My favorite adult character is, not surprisingly, Mrs. Devenish. She was inspired by one of my old teachers at my girls’ school in England, a larger-than-life character who been educated at Cambridge University (before Cambridge would even award degrees to women), a feminist, a socialist, and the widowed mother of two kids. She was often fierce: One of her proudest claims was that she didn’t “suffer fools gladly,” and she sometimes resolved arguments with clever-but-cheeky girls by hitting them, usually with a not-too-hard slap upside the head. I was on the receiving end of many of her threats and occasional violence, because I have never known when to shut up.

All that said, she was one of the kindest and most admirable people I have ever known. She was always ready to listen, understanding of adolescents, clever as all get out, principled, and a terrific role model for difficult young women. On impulse, I flew to England in winter, 2006/7, to see her for the first time in 25 years, and took her a copy of the manuscript. I’m glad I went, because she died last June. There’s a whole book waiting to be written about that visit, or maybe it needs to be a play… It certainly felt as though it wasn’t quite real, especially when she scolded me for something I’d done to annoy her a quarter-century earlier… She never forgot anything.

My favorite scene? Yikes…. Forced to pick one, it would have to be when Brandon tries to persuade Mr. Gordon to hire him as a dentist. Can I have two? Then it would be when Mrs.D. and Hannah climb the church tower together.

Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress? Do you have any upcoming releases?

Happy to. Right now, I’m dividing my writing time between the second book of The Snipesville Chronicles, tentatively titled As It Is Or Ever Was, due out with Confusion Press in late September, and my new blog, News From Snipesville (quick plug:

As It Is continues the adventures of Alex, Brandon, and Hannah in British and American history, but I’ve worked hard to make the book as unpredictable as it is comfortingly familiar to fans of Don’t Know Where: I don’t want to write a series if that means adopting a formula, sticking with it, and going through the motions. That’s why I haven’t pledged to write a set number of books, and why I’ve shied away from pushing my work to major publishers who like long-term contracts with bankable authors. I don’t want to write soulless books purely for my own and others’ profit, and that’s that.

I won’t say much about As It Is, except that it’s set in 1851. This is the time of the height of slavery in the South, and the end of the toughest times of the British Industrial Revolution, so it’s an interesting backdrop. Not to mention that the kids will visit the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, the first ever world’s fair, where Mr. Colt demonstrated his amazing pistols, and 500,000 people got to use a flushing toilet for the first time in their lives… And, yes, there is a plot, but I’m not giving it away, in part because it’s a bit complicated…

My blog is actually a website in progress, dedicated to promoting what I call non-boring history for kids. I don’t say “fun” because the word has been misused to the point of meaninglessness, plus something can be really interesting without being fun. I review books and museums, and comment on the news, in effort to draw attention to the serious problem of the dire state of history education. This project and the books are, to my mind, the logical culmination of the turn my career as an historian took about five years ago. I also do schools visits, which are much more about history than about me or my book. These challenges me to keep thinking about how to get kids interested in and excited about history.

What do you love about history? What do you love about historical fiction?

Somebody incredibly famous whose name I can’t recall once said that we read literature to know we are not alone. History is the same way. It reminds us that the past is still very much a part of us, of how we act and think, and there’s something really soothing to the soul about that. Good history and good historical fiction share an ability to communicate that message in exciting ways. I love good historical fiction, because well-informed authors often do a better job than most historians of getting across the differences and similarities between past and present. Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker are two of my favorite authors.

Have you always loved to read? Did you have a reading hero growing up? Someone who encouraged you to read, to lose yourself in a good book?

But of course! I grew up in a town that’s kind of the opposite of how Americans imagine England: I think it’s fair to say it was modern, drab, ugly, soulless, and anti-intellectual. Reading gave me a way to see a future out of that, and also to make an imaginative connection with the cozy middle-class England to which I yearned to belong.

My parents definitely encouraged my interest in books, and funded it, by buying me most of the books I wanted. Libraries are wonderful places, but I feel very strongly that kids should be book owners, too, and not just because I have an obvious interest in book sales! Having your own library to read and re-read is an incredibly stimulating and reassuring thing for a kid. Before I forget, I also want to thank Biddy Baxter, the first producer of the BBC children’s TV show Blue Peter, which introduced me and countless other British kids to all sorts of fascinating subjects, including books. She replied to every letter sent to the show, including mine, and I still have the Blue Peter badge I was sent. We desperately need a show like BP in America. So inspiring.

What were some of your favorites growing up? And what are some of your favorites now?

I was actually more into non-fiction than fiction as a kid, and so had favorite subjects (history especially) rather than authors. But I definitely loved the predictable 70s authors and books: Roald Dahl, Clement Freud (Grimble), the Nigel Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans, Nina Bawden (Carrie’s War), among them.

As for my favorites now, I share your deep love for Charles Dickens, Becky! Just teasing: I love Dickens, but I know that makes me weird, as does my hating Jane Austen. I also enjoy E.M. Forster (Howards End is set in the town I called Balesworth in my book, and in which both Forster and I lived…Not at the same time, of course), John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey, my hero), Tony Horwitz (funny, funny history/journalism), and many, many more. I tend to choose the book, rather than the author. Oh, and I am fond of the Shopaholic series. Lovely reads.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

I wouldn’t need or want most of the money, because it would only complicate things. Even if I gave it away, it would just spark a huge wave of inflation, wreck the world economy, and bring out the worst in people. So, keep the money. As for the time machine and the twenty-four hours, I would probably go to Scotland around 1900, and get to know my great-great-grandmother, who was about my age and living with her husband and seven kids in a tiny flat in the industrial city of Dundee. She liked outrageous hats and was reputedly quite a character, so I imagine we would get along. And if we didn’t, well, that would make a cool story, too.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

Fascinating interview! I just read this book for the 48 hour readathon, and liked it lots.