Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hannah Barnaby: Morris Award Interview

Houghton Mifflin, 2012

Wonder Show 

Today's Morris nominee interview is with Hannah Barnaby.

Stories come easily to motherless Portia, and a good thing, too. They sustain her when her father leaves her and when her aunt abandons her to the ghastly McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls. When she escapes, they win her a place with Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show, where she hopes to find her father again somehow, where “freak,” “normal” and “family” mean something altogether different — and where Portia begins to take charge of her own story.

(Description from The Hub The YALSA 2013 Morris Award Finalist announcement)

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A bicycle suitable for the Banshee of Brewster Falls.

Wonder Show is your debut novel. What inspired you to write this story? How would you describe the experience of writing it?

Clich√© as it may sound, my very first image of Portia was in a dream I had, of a girl riding a bicycle across a prairie. I felt very certain that she was trying to escape from someone and when I woke up, I remembered her so clearly that I couldn’t just leave her behind.
The writing experience was challenging (aren’t they all?). I had won a grant from the Boston Public Library to be their first children’s writer-in-residence. It was a huge gift to have been given financial support and office space to get the writing done, but I felt so much pressure that it nearly paralyzed me. In the end, I wrote the novel in short fragments, out of order. It made the revision process terribly messy, but it allowed me to write very instinctively and I think that’s what ultimately gave Portia’s story so much emotional resonance.

The Morris Award is for a “first time author writing for teens.” Did you intend Wonder Show to be a YA novel from the beginning? How did you imagine your audience while you wrote?

I did always think of Wonder Show as a young adult novel, but knowing how it would be categorized is not the same as knowing the audience. “Young adult” is a term used by bookstores and libraries and publishers who need to organize books. I hoped that this novel would transcend that to some extent, and be read by a wider audience that could include anyone who loves stories with a dark side.

Wonder Show unfolds in many voices. Why did this story need a shifting perspective?

The first-person vignettes that punctuate the third-person chapters were the result of my need to explore characters other than Portia, to deepen them so they would feel real in the story. I actually considered taking all of those pieces out of the novel during one of the revision stages, but by then, they felt integrated with Portia’s experience and I decided to leave them in place.

Portia's story is set in the dust and desperation of the Great Depression. How do you think that resonates with the experience of young readers?

A random amazing sideshow.
I don’t think many of us in this day and age can fully comprehend what it was like to live through the Great Depression. That said, poverty is still a very real issue for a lot of families and the sacrifices that Portia’s family had to make are parallel to those tough choices that those families face today. On another level altogether, Portia’s desperation to change her circumstances will, I think, make sense to any young person who feels stuck, alone, hopeless about his or her future. We’ve all had dark moments, we’ve all been confronted with seemingly impossibly challenges. And we’re together in that.

Family history is a very important theme in Wonder Show. What are some of Wonder Show's own, literary, ancestors? 

“Influence” is a tricky word. I think, most of the time, our influences are below the surface—we may not know where they originated or how to identify them. There are books that I am very aware of having read and loved, such as A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. All of these taught me the unparalleled resonance you can achieve by dropping a bit of humor right in the middle of a wide swathe of bleakness.

What happens next? Do you have another novel in the works? 

I do. I’m a bit superstitious about saying too much about works-in-progress, but I can tell you that it’s a contemporary young adult novel about a girl on a mission to catalog her dead brother’s donated organs.

Hannah's WiP. Wow. 

Writing advice in five words or less...     
Books don’t write themselves.

What are you reading?
I’m about to start King Dork by Frank Portman.

Three movies you think are worth watching, maybe more than once...
Amelie; Rushmore; Sneakers.

Last song you added to your music library...
“California Stars” by Billy Bragg and Wilco. I defy you to stay in a bad mood after you’ve heard it.

"It was key to have an opening line that was just this side of unbelievable." With this in mind, how did you find the first line of Wonder Show?

There was a bit of debate, actually, about where to start the story (ironic, given the refrain “begin at the beginning” that repeats in Wonder Show). I kept thinking about more stuff I wanted to add to the preface, more background I wanted to give, but in the end, it just felt right to start off by setting the scene from where I did.

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