Saturday, June 13, 2009

Author Pamela Ehrenberg discusses her new book

I first met Pam in the apartment of my dear friend Robin when we moved to Washington, D.C. Pam had a super cute baby girl strapped to her in a Baby Bjorn and a novel she was shopping around to publishers (and another she was writing). I thought to myself, "this is someone I want to know better." I still feel that way about Pam. We have been through a lot together since that day in Robin's apartment: writing group, playgroup, we've babysat each other's kids while the other one tried to squeeze in a few minutes of writing time, we've had babies within a week of each other (twice), I've flushed Spiderman underpants down her toilet, the list goes on and on.

Pam's latest book is called Tilmon County Fire. Here's the blurb from the back of the book:

"In Tiny Tilmon County, where it seems like nothing ever happens and the most
serious crimes are vandalism and bar brawls, a mysterious fire rocks the lives
of the teenagers who live there. As the story unfolds, the lines between
truth and fiction, motive and happenstance, guilt and innocence blur. This
novel-in-stories is told in the voices of its disparate cast of characters,
including a frustrated adoptee, a gay teenager, a big-city kid who is new in
town and wishes he were back in Manhattan, a pregnant store clerk, and a boy
with autism, who is more at the center of events than he imagines."

I highly recommend this book. If you start it, you won't be able to stop. Seriously. It's one of those books that calls to you from the nightstand, saying "read me..."

So, without further's my interview with Pam! As usual Pam has amazing things to say about writing and motherhood. Don't forget to leave a comment/question for Pam. I'll put all the comments in a (fireman) hat and the winner will receive a copy of Tilmon County Fire!!! Woo hoo!!!

For the sake of clarity and to look cool, my questions have an MT in front of them and Pam's answers have a PE.

MT: You have managed to publish two novels and have two children in the past four years…First of all, WOW. Second of all, do you find motherhood to be compatible with writing? Why or why not?

PE: You're very kind. I guess I haven't found it compatible in the way I first imagined it would be, when I began my extended "maternity leave" with dreams of long, blissful hours away from a 9-5 job where I could write and write while baby cooed and played. I definitely haven't found it possible to write and parent in the same moment. But in a larger sense, I think for our kids to grow up knowing that we're people first and mothers second--and that being "people" may include being a writer--I think in that way, writing and motherhood are very compatible.

MT: Where do you get your ideas for stories? Are your stories already formed when you sit down to write them, or are you generally staring at a blank page, trying to make these people get up and walk around (like I am)?

PE: It's hard to know where ideas come from . . . I guess I'd say the stories are already formed but not yet known to me--like the characters are up walking around in their own parallel universe already, and my job is to learn what they're doing and find the words to communicate that. I haven't had much success in making my characters do anything they weren't going to do anyway (a bit like parenting sometimes, come to think of it!). I've had better luck with my characters when I stand off to the sidelines and observe them long enough that they forget I'm there.

MT: Are there some ways you have set up your life so that writing gets done? Can you share some of your tips, please?

PE: Well, when Talia was a baby, I promised myself that her morning nap would be devoted to writing, sacred time not to be used for catching-up the way afternoon nap could be. That, of course, doesn't work at all with a second child. But some other things have helped: our regular childcare/writing-time exchange was invaluable, especially knowing that if someone else (you!) was going to the trouble of caring for my child, I'd darn well do what I said I was going to do with that time. There's also the accountability built into our 7-person writing group, the knowledge that 6 people will arrive at your house one evening, possibly carrying cookies, and that someone is going to ask, "So, what have you written this month?" For a while when I was working on this book, I also had a more structured exchange with a friend from college: every other month, we'd each send each other a chunk of what we'd been working on, and in the alternating months we'd send feedback. At the moment, I'm experimenting with Twitter as a motivating force: every time the word count on my new manuscript goes up or down, I get to Tweet about it.

MT: Do you think of yourself as a writer at this point? A stay-at-home mom? A professional laundress? Short order cook? How do you identify yourself?

PE: Ha! You know, the only one of those labels that's always kind of made my neck itch was "stay-at-home mom"--I always felt like I should put a little asterisk by it that I was home for a while trying to launch this writing thing but that I knew from the beginning I would never be very good at castle birthday cakes or so many of the other things that seem to come much more naturally to people who embrace the term "stay-at-home mom." Just recently I've started to identify publicly as a writer--and still with a lot of hesitation, like, "I guess I'm allowed to call myself a writer now?"

MT: I get the hesitation, but I think you're definitely allowed to call yourself a writer. I still hesitate when I say it. I don't mind the stay-at-home mom label, though. Except it sort of sounds like I'm a shut-in. What about motherhood has surprised you most? How does this affect your writing?

PE: When I was pregnant with Talia, someone asked me what I was looking forward to about motherhood, and I said I was looking forward to the excuse to slow down, to stop and really enjoy the dandelions. What's surprised me over the past four years is how much harder I've found it to slow down enough to enjoy those moments--not always be rushing ahead to dinner, bath, bed, whatever the next thing on the kid-genda might be. (You seem to be much better than I am at this, and one of the reasons I read Mommytown is to try to absorb these lessons through osmosis. But if you ever wanted to try a step-by-step for those of us who need remediation in this area, I'd be grateful!) Anyway, I think it's the same kind of slowing down that's needed for writing--needing to know what a dandelion feels like brushing against your cheek or squished between your fingers. Learning to slow down would benefit me in all areas of life!

MT: The trick to slowing down is staying in your jammies for as long as possible every morning. : ) Can you give us a one or two sentence synopsis of what you think Tilmon County Fire is about? I have my own ideas, but I’d rather hear your version.

PE: I think it's about being part of a community, how the stories that belong to each of us really belong to all of us. Cait says at one point, "It's my life, but it's their life too. We're in this together, however we might feel about each other at any particular moment." I think community-building is what you do such an amazing job of here on Mommytown, bringing together moms who sometimes see the world through very different lenses but nonetheless are all in this parenting thing together. (Oops, that was three sentences--four, now.) : )

MT: What are your goals for Tilmon County Fire? Are you hoping to ruffle a few feathers with this book? Maybe take some people out of their comfort zone a little? Do you think it’s too edgy to be read in a high school English class? I would hope that’s not the case, but what do you think (being a former teacher and all)?

PE: Gosh, you know, it's only in the past few days that I've let myself start wondering if enough people might notice the book that someone might get their feathers ruffled. I don't think it had occurred to me that any grown-ups other than my writing group pals and a few hip librarians would ever even hear about it. Hopefully we're beyond the point where gay teens, inter-racial dating, or National Public Radio are feather-ruffling topics for many people--but if these things are in fact outside some people's comfort zones, then I guess, yeah, having identified some feathers in need of ruffling, I'd be honored to accept that as a goal. And I would love for the book to be read in English classes--the publisher is working on a discussion guide that will hopefully be helpful to teachers and other educators who'd like to use the book.

MT: Emma has a question for you: “How do you make a book real?” (She has a butterfly book she’s looking to pitch.)

PE: Hi, Emma! Thanks so much for joining in. Do you mean "real" like make people believe your story really happened? If so, my advice is to know that butterfly so well--the colors on its wings, how it looks when it sits and flies--that you can describe it so readers feel like they're seeing it too. If you mean "real" like "published," the first thing I'd say is that your story is already real--it doesn't become more real when it gets published, it just means more people have a chance to read it. But you might have fun checking into some publishing opportunities for kids--maybe Highlights magazine?

MT: Highlights! I'll have to look into that. Although if Emma gets published before me, I might just give up. Got any books you’re dying to read this summer (in all your spare time)?

PE: You know, it's only in the past month or two that I've been able to read fiction again. After my husband died last summer, there was some part of my brain that closed off and couldn't let any imaginary worlds in for about 7 or 8 months, which is the longest I've gone without fiction since I learned how to read. But slowly that's opened up again, and I'm currently reading a terrific new novel called I Do Not Come to You by Chance (by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani) about Nigerian email scams. : ) Next up I want to read Dara Horn's new book, All Other Nights. I've just learned how to reserve library books online and have them sent over from other branches--I think the library has had this capacity for a while, but it's new for me and feels very liberating. Almost as easy as ordering from Amazon, and it's free!

MT: I am in love with the library right now. I might want to marry it. Except sometimes I get sad when I can't remember what books I've read because they were library books and I can't look at them on my shelves. I spend a lot of time looking at the books on my shelves. They inspire me. Do you have any words of wisdom for moms who have the desire to be creative?

PE: Every mom I know is creative, whether it turns up in her artistic pursuits, her kids' birthday cakes, or her ability to create an ad hoc burp cloth out of conference notes. In terms of moms who ware wanting to use their creativity in some kind of "official" pursuit (in the arts, or setting up a business, or whatever), at the moment I'm all about "social networking"--not just in the sense of Lightning Question #4 below, but in the old-fashioned sense of talking to your friends' friends' friends--it's amazing how enough of these conversations invariably seem to lead to people who can be role models, mentors, and allies. And with enough practice at telling people about your project, eventually you just might start believing it yourself.

MT: Okay, Pam. Here’s the lightning round. Answer the first thing that pops into your head. Ready? Set? Go! Which would you rather achieve in a day: write five pages or have your whole house clean at once?

PE: Write five pages. (Because I can actually imagine that one--the other choice is too far outside my realm of consciousness.)

MT: How do you celebrate when you finish a draft? Champagne, marshmallows, more writing?

PE: I'm not sure I've ever managed to identify the moment when I've finished a draft. More often, I realize that this thing I'm working on has morphed significantly since I started calling it "Draft 2" and so perhaps it's actually "Draft 3" that I've now been working on. I like your suggestions, though!

MT: If you weren’t a writer, what other profession would you pursue?

PE: I keep getting stuck on this one. Is there a profession where I could get paid to travel but not have to write about my experiences or spend any time in conference rooms?

MT: Facebook or Twitter?

PE: Both! Also MySpace, LinkedIn, and GoodReads. Web 2.0 was *made* for introverts like me who are too shy to pick up the phone and call someone.

MT: Box mac ‘n cheese or homemade?

PE: Homemade. (This question is about preference, not frequency, right?)

MT: Which do you prefer writing: dialogue or description?

PE: Dialogue. Fills the page much quicker when my goal is a certain number of pages per day.

When you’re blocked, do you
A) Write garbage and then delete
B) Stare at a blank screen
C) Other

PE: A & C. Flip to a section that doesn't repulse me at that moment, and write garbage there. That's why I like novels more than short stories--less likely that the whole project will repulse me at the same time.

MT: Sleep training or personal training—which would be more useful to you at this point?

PE: Sorry--what was that? You lost me after the word "sleep."

MT: Which is harder: Revising a novel for the billionth time or potty training?

PE: Well, with potty training you kind of know from the beginning what the end result is, and it's usually clear whether what's happening at that moment is progressing toward the goal. And you've got people reminding you that no one goes to college in diapers, that everyone meets the goal eventually. Whereas there are lots more unrevised/unfinished/never-really-got-started novels out there (by which I mean on my hard drive) than I like to think about. Though that doesn't really answer the question, does it? Which--by the way--just might be my favorite question I've ever been asked. : )

MT: Would you want your babies to grow up to be writers?

PE: Only if they can't help it. Wait, that didn't sound right. What I meant was, I want them to find whatever it is they can't help being, then not try to fight against being that thing (as I did for so long about being a writer).

MT: Whew! Okay, that may have been the longest interview in history! I just couldn't help myself...I love talking to Pam! If you're still reading, then you should definitely leave a comment because you're obviously quite the reader and you would LOVE Pam's book! Pam will be reading the comments and questions, so feel free to address things to her or me. Thank you!!!

P.S. Please leave a comment! (even if you're not the comment-leaving type. You know who are.) : )


Anonymous said...

PE and MT, I loved the interview and can't wait to get the book. You definitely need to do more of these much fun. Pam, I'm so impressed that you have written two books and had two children in four years - keep up the good work.Your audience seems to be middle school/high school. What was your favorite book or type of book when you were that age? Thanks for sharing.

gwen1234 said...

Loved the interview! I learned a lot from it even though I'd also interviewed Pam... it's amazing how much there is to talk about with this stuff. Yay!

Deanna said...

Good interview, would love to read to the book!

Suzanne said...

Great interview and blog post! I've been looking for a new fiction read.

Pamela Ehrenberg said...

Thanks so much, all--and especially thanks, Elizabeth, for the kind words and terrific interview! It is such an honor to be here on MommyTown--thanks for always making me feel so much at home! Sarah, in response to your question--I remember a big gap around 8th and 9th grade, where I felt too old for Judy Blume (an earlier favorite!) and too young for "grownup" fiction...I read a lot of Sweet Valley High and (odd combination, perhaps) a lot of Stephen King, waiting for the next book that would "fit." YA literature has come a long way in the past 20 years or so--I've been fortunate to have lots of good role models and mentors paving the way.

Annie Schwendinger said...

OK, I LOVED reading this from start to finish. I am so impressed with both of you ladies and so proud to call you my friends. I can't wait to get my hands on Pam's new book. Thanks for the fun interview. Elizabeth, yes, you must do more!

Robin said...

I felt like I was listening in on a conversation between friends...which I suppose I was! Congrats, Pam, on another novel (Ethan, Suspended is STILL a fave) and to you, Elizabeth, for some great questions. Loved every word.

My question: Does Talia understand that you are a published author? I think that it would be too cool to have a mom who writes books. Wonder if she thinks so yet?


Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

I loved this interview! I felt like I was eavesdropping on a lunch date. Pam, I feel so inspired by your commitment to pursuing your talent and not abandoning yourself to be a mother. I believe your kids will benefit from that model. After almost 13 years of mothering I've only very recently realized I had to find that balance and pursue my own artistic passion. So my question is: Who was the role model who taught you or inspired you to create this kind of balance of self vs. mommy? Thanks so much, by the way, for writing for teens. You definitely have a following at our house! Can't wait to get the book. Elizabeth awesome interview. Keep it up!

Lauren Y. said...

Hi to Pam from an old neighbor in Cleveland Park, this is Lauren (Kalina's mom), we used live at 2711 Ordway....Can't believe that time flies so fast, there is so much happening in your life. I surely will check out the book. Wish you all the best!

Pamela Ehrenberg said...

Wow, thanks so much to all of you for coming by--it is so great to hear from old friends and neighbors who are now in MD & TX (in addition to those still in the DC area)--and newer friends in Italy and elsewhere. : ) I think Elizabeth deserves big-time kudos that she's gotten more comments here than any other stop on the blog tour! Thanks so much, Elizabeth and all of you!

Re "does Talia understand?"--when she was two I took her on a series of visits to area bookstores, trying to persuade them to carry Ethan, Suspended, and she got to know the cover of that one pretty she gets pretty psyched when she sees it and can point out, "Mommy's book!" That also meant she was kind of distraught when Gwen came over and bought a copy for her mom (thanks again, Gwen!) and then attempted to carry it home ("but that's Mommy's book!"). I've been downplaying the new one a little b/c she's actually scared of fire--not sure why, but it extends as far as calling Nathan's little binky thing a "paci," rather than "pacifier," which has the word "fire" in it. Perhaps more exciting than what she thinks of my book is that she's now writing her own: someone gave her an Alix kit for her birthday with blank hardcover books that she could illustrate and then dictate a story for me to fill in. She couldn't wait to dig in and is working on a series about a king and queen with their daughters. Of course, it'll be easy enough to continue these adventures once the Alix kit is finished, but it actually served really well as a jump-start.

Re role models: Growing up, I always wished that my mom had a bit more of that self/balance--I'm an only child, and I think my mom was a bit of a "helicopter parent" before that term was officially coined. I actually wished that she would occasionally forget about a school event or have to rush last-minute to throw something together because she'd been busy with something of her own. And I think fairly often about a wonderful essay by the author Anne Tyler, called "Still Just Writing" (after another mom asked her on the playground whether she was working yet or "still just writing"). I couldn't find it online--hooray that some copyrighted item is still protected!--but did find this neat 1977 piece on her that talked about blending her various roles:
I really liked the question, "Is John Updike a father of four who writes?"

Hooray to Elizabeth for such great thought- and comment-provoking conversation!