Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Zebra Forest: A Fresh Ink interview with Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Zebra Forest is a Candlewick book.
ISBN 978-0763660413

I was lucky enough to be able to read an arc of Zebra Forest—then I brought it with me into a 5th grade classroom to share with those young readers. 
I'm excited to tell you that just one week from today—on April 9, 2013—Zebra Forest  will be released.
I hope you will look for it and share it with thoughtful readers who like a story rich with true-to-heart characters. 
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When eleven-year-old Annie first started lying to her social worker, she had been taught by an expert: Gran. "If you’re going to do something, make sure you do it with excellence," Gran would say. That was when Gran was feeling talkative, and not brooding for days in her room — like she did after telling Annie and her little brother, Rew, the one thing they know about their father: that he was killed in a fight with an angry man who was sent away. Annie tells stories, too, as she and Rew laze under the birches and oaks of Zebra Forest -- stories about their father the pirate, or pilot, or secret agent. But then something shocking happens to unravel all their stories: a rattling at the back door, an escapee from the prison holding them hostage in their own home, four lives that will never be the same. Driven by suspense and psychological intrigue, Zebra Forest deftly portrays an unfolding standoff of truth against family secrets -- and offers an affecting look at two resourceful, imaginative kids as they react and adapt to the hand they’ve been dealt.
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Adina gave me a chance to ask her a few questions.  Enjoy! And then start watching for Zebra Forest in book stores and libraries.
I had the pleasure of meeting Adina in Seattle at ALA
where our books got to rub shoulders. 


ZEBRA FOREST is such an intriguing title. (I know this absolutely because of the response I got from young readers when they heard it.) How did the book find that title?
First, I love how you phrased the question! I do think books find their titles, and in this case, the title actually found the book, because the title came to me before much else. Years ago, I was driving through Rock Creek Park, which runs between Washington, D.C. and Maryland, where I live. The park is beautiful in every season, but on this particular day, I came upon it after a rainstorm.  The rain had slicked everything so that the dark trunks were darker, the light ones much lighter. The contrast struck me as looking like the stripes of a zebra, and I immediately thought of it as a zebra forest. I also thought that it looked like such a magical, enticing place that I needed to put a story into it. Only problem was, I didn’t have one yet. But once I knew the zebra forest was there, I had to keep at it. I spent a lot of my time in those days dreaming of being a writer and jotting down notes for stories, mostly the voices of characters I thought sounded interesting. That’s how I got the voice of Annie, the girl who became the narrator of Zebra Forest. Still, I didn’t know what would happen in the zebra forest. That took a lot of years of living, thinking about it on and off, and realizing that the story I wanted to put in that beautiful place was about a family with a secret.

Do you share your young characters' love of imaginative play? Did you (do you) use books as a springboard for play? What books?
I have always been a story lover and a story spinner, and much of my childhood was spent making up games or stories and acting them out. I’m the oldest of six kids, and my brothers and sisters and I used to play elaborate games together, assigning roles and setting up adventures. In one I particularly remember, one of our favorite cousins was visiting for a long holiday, and we pretended our porch was a ship. Everybody got to be something – captain, navigator, ship’s doctor. My youngest brother, who at the time we considered too small to be of interest, kept asking for a part, and we finally made him ship’s lawyer, which pleased him until he realized there’s not much litigating done at sea. But every game was something like that – we were genies stuck in a bottle, explorers, superheroes. And yes, books launched lots of those games, but not in the specific way that they do in Zebra Forest. Instead, everything we read became fodder for our plays and stories. I was a huge science fiction fan as a kid (still am!) and I remember reading Lester Del Rey’s The Runaway Robot and thinking about what it would be like to live on a moon of Jupiter, ride in a spaceship, and have a robot as a friend.
Were there always pirates in this story?
Funny you should ask, because the pirates are a relatively late addition to the book, but they helped me feel like I had finished it. I was a kid who lived in books, and I knew that Annie and Rew would be that way too, especially given their isolated lifestyle. I wanted Rew to have a “boy” book that he loved, even though I believe in those categories less and less the more I read and live. Anyway, I picked Treasure Island, which at the time, I had never read. After making reference to it a couple times, I realized I really had to see what the book was like, and started reading it. I fell in love with it! Not only is the story just great, but I realized that in the strangest way, the characters in Treasure Island were connected to my characters, that they each had their roles in the treasure ship and among the pirates, just as Annie, Rew and Gran have theirs in their family. Once I saw that, I felt like Annie and Rew had just been waiting for me to read Treasure Island so they could have their pirates already. 
There is a secret—a mystery—at the heart of your book. What do you think is the relationship between the unknown and fiction? [This is a horribly framed question, but I often wonder about the relationship between truth and fiction, and it seems like mystery is involved somehow...]
I’ve always felt that the urge to hear or read stories is one of the most basic things that makes us human. In some ways, you could call the human animal the “need to know mammal,” because we thrive on learning and discovery. The whole reason we communicate with each other is to find things out. Our brains are always popping with mysteries and questions, from the simple ones – what will I have for breakfast? – to the profound – why are we here? And so the engine of fiction has to be the unknown. That’s what makes us want to turn the page – to find out. 
As for the question about the relationship between truth and fiction, I look at fiction as a different kind of truth. The events described in a novel didn’t happen, so it’s obviously not true in that sense. But it has a deeper kind of truth, because for me, the best fiction strips away the façade we put on for society and gets to the raw reality we each live underneath. So you could meet someone at a party, talk to them, and go away thinking you know something about them, when in fact, the truth of what they are – even how they experienced the hour you just spent with them – might be totally different. It gets into that individual reality – that truth – that we can’t see from the outside, even when we’ve got all the “facts” of events laid out before us.
Have there been any surprises during your debut year? Is the editing and publishing process what you expected?
I’m really grateful to say that all my surprises have been good ones in this process, with the exception of getting the stomach flu at my first author’s dinner! Until now, very few people in the world had ever read my fiction. Most of the people I know didn’t even know I wrote any. So the first surprise was getting a novel published at all. When you hold onto a dream so long, you tend to doubt yourself, and often think, well, if I’m supposed to be a writer, wouldn’t it have happened by now? When I heard that Candlewick Press wanted Zebra Forest, I actually was just stunned. Sometimes dreams do come true.
The second surprise has been how many people seem to relate to Annie and Rew and what it’s like to live with secrets, and to struggle to find out about yourself, your past, and your family. More than one person has told me their family had a secret that marked it, and I think it’s even more of a common experience than I realized when I wrote the book.
Are you working on a new book? Has your writing process changed or evolved? Is it a very different sort of book from Zebra Forest?
I am working on a new book, and it is very different from Zebra Forest. It’s a fantasy, told through several perspectives, and explores a lot of questions that fascinate me, like what makes us human, and what happens when we give that up? I can’t say much without giving it away, but it involves a window, five kids, and a couple of Barbie dolls, which end up being used in some interesting ways.
As to my writing process, I think it has changed, because I have more time to write than I ever did, and now I know that the process comes with lots of stops and starts, so I’m less panicked when I hit one of the stops. Sometimes, you really do need to walk away from the computer and just give yourself time to think. I didn’t let myself do that as much when I was a freelancer working on tight deadlines.
Talk to me about soup...
Soup! I happen to love soup, and consider it one of the greatest comfort foods ever, which is probably why it figures so much into Zebra Forest. A big family project when I was growing up was making soup for the holidays, and I love the way the smell of soup fills the house. That experience is just one of many that Annie missed because of her family circumstance, and so I thought soup would be a nice thing to give her as the novel went along.
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