Interview with Donna Gephart, Author of As If Being 12 3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President!
Did you miss my review of As If Being 12 3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President? Check it out and then come on back here for a fun interview with the author Donna Gephart.
Maw Books: Welcome to the Maw Books Blog Donna! Congratulations on your debut novel As If Being 12 3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President. Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself, so our readers can get to know you?
Donna Gephart: As a sometimes lonely child, I found great refuge and joy in the public library. I still consider the library a second home. I’ve written since I was about ten. At fourteen, I bought a used typewriter with babysitting money and was well on my way to submitting my work and collecting my first (of many) rejection slips. Over the years, I’ve sold everything from greeting cards to puzzles to restaurant reviews to funny magazine essays to novels for young people. Originally from Philadelphia, I attended Penn State University and now live in South Florida with hubby, two teenage sons, a fat, aging cat, Jasmine, and an Australian Cattle dog mix, Lady, who follows me everywhere.
Maw Books: Where did the story As If Being 12 3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President and the main character Vanessa come from?
Donna Gephart: Um, big feet, loves purple, Scrabble-loving word nerd. Let’s just say that Vanessa and I have a lot in common. I wrote the story for an anthology about mother/daughter relationships. While the anthology’s editor didn’t feel my story worked for her collection, she liked Vanessa’s strong, quirky voice and encouraged me to develop the story into a novel. The initial idea was sparked by a rumor I’d heard years ago that when Chelsea Clinton went to the school nurse, she told the nurse to call her father because her mother was too busy. What really happened was the school nurse needed parental permission to give Chelsea an aspirin, and she said, “Call my father. My mother is out of town.” The idea of a mother who is so busy she wouldn’t be available for her daughter inspired the story.
Maw Books: As If Being 12 3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President is a coming of age novel about Vanessa who must cope with a preoccupied single parent and the loss of another, teenage angst, all the while describing the election process. All of these themes mesh together really well. Is that balance of storytelling difficult to get just right? I guess what I’m getting at, is how many revisions and drafts do you go through before you got it just perfect?
Donna Gephart: Thank you. A lot of research and months of writing went into the first draft of this novel. When I sent it to my agent, she wrote back something along the lines of, “Even if your readers didn’t grow up on Loveboat, the romance element is predictable. What your readers really want to know is the inside scoop of life on the campaign trail.” After thinking about her revision suggestions, I kept the first two chapters and tossed the rest. Four months of research and writing later, I sent my agent a much tighter version. Of course my editor then asked for additional revisions, including adding a best buddy for Vanessa. So, Emma was added on the final revision.
Maw Books: Describe where you write and how you let the creativity flow.
Donna Gephart: When my children are at school, I write . . . unless I surf the web, talk on the phone, do the laundry, pet the cat or play with the dog. On a good day, I’ll write for hours and get lost in the story. On a not-so-good day, the words don’t flow. I trick myself to stay in the chair with time limits or word limits or bribes of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice-cream. Sometimes, I’ll write in the library or a coffee shop to get a break from the isolation of my home office. My main philosophy in writing and in life is: Whatever works.
Maw Books: I could go for some Chunky Monkey ice-cream. Do you have a favorite line from the book? One that makes you think, “Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that?!”
Donna Gephart: My favorite scene from the book, near the end, is when Vanessa finds out who has been dropping notes in her locker. Just before she makes the shocking discovery, she turns around and finally stands up to the big jerk, Reginald, whom she used to crush on. When I reread that part, I want to cheer for Vanessa’s bravery. The part I usually read during school visits is when Vanessa accidentally interrupts a meeting between her mother and the governor of California — Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Maw Books: That was a fun scene! What was your reaction when you saw your book in the store for the first time? How did you celebrate the release of your debut novel?
Donna Gephart: On my desk, I have a photo of me holding my book, surrounded by my writing buddies in the local Barnes and Noble. Before the bookstore visit, we enjoyed a celebratory lunch with my hubby and several friends. There were balloons and flowers and lots of laughter. When lunch was over, my writing buddies took me to the bookstore where they stopped strangers to tell them about my new book. I ended up signing copies right there for strangers. I feel grateful to belong to such a supportive community.
Maw Books: So great you have such great friends! How important is the support of the community of authors during the road to publication? And how can others wanting to get published get involved in this community?
Donna Gephart: There’s a place for you in the children’s writing and illustrating community no matter what part of the journey you’re on. I’m a big advocate of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). It’s through them I found my local critique group. It’s through their message board I found my lovely and talented agent. It’s through them I found support and inspiration at conferences. I strongly recommend getting involved with SCBWI on a local and national level. Write articles for the newsletter, volunteer to help at a local conference, participate on the message boards, etc. Writing is a lonely profession — a community of like-minded people can be a life-saver.
Maw Books: What is the best part about doing what you love and what is the hardest part about doing what you love?
Donna Gephart: Best part: When the writing flows and I’m wholly absorbed in another world with quirky characters who feel real. Worst part: When the writing won’t flow and I can’t seem to find my way into that world or those characters.
Maw Books: What authors and type of books have influenced you as a writer?
Donna Gephart: Some of the books I read as a child stick in my mind most strongly — Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Hundred Dresses, Ben and Me, etc. Those books were like friends to me. I write books now that I hope might keep a child company, like a good friend.
Maw Books: I just read Mr. Popper’s Penguins this year. It was way cute. No cheating. What book(s) are on your nightstand right now?
Donna Gephart: At the moment, I’m reading On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner, because I love reading books about writers and the writing process. And I just finished listening to The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg — a smart, sensitive book.
Maw Books: And how large is your TBR pile? What are you just dying to read that you haven’t yet?
Donna Gephart: I posted a photo of the books beside my bed on my blog here. If they were to topple over while I slept, they would kill me. Every day, it seems, I hear of another great book I’ve got to read. After reading Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, I’m looking forward to Laurel Snyder’s next book. And Pete Hautman’s Rash makes me eager to read more of his work. Hubby reads even more than I (quirky adult books) and posts his reviews and other fun stuff here: www.dansdistractions.blogspot.com
Maw Books: They are about to topple over! You need another bookshelf! One of my favorite features is to ask authors for a favorite recipe of theirs, especially if it appeared in the book. So I was delighted when you included the recipe to the oft mentioned Lemon Square Bars at the back of the book. I seriously wanted some every time Mrs. Perez made them. This must be a favorite of yours. Where did the original recipe come from?
Donna Gephart: I love when readers (adults and children) write to tell me they’ve made the recipe from my book. I like anything that enhances the experience of reading. I found the lemon squares recipe on the Internet, but tinkered with it quite a bit, especially cutting down the sugar. It was fun experimenting in my kitchen to get the taste just right. My new book has a recipe, too, for Jewish Apple Cake. I must be hungry when I write!
Mrs. Perez’s DROP-DEAD Delicious Lemon Squares
1 3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 cup margarine, melted
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C.) Grease a 9×13 pan.
- In a medium bowl, stir together 1 3/4 cups of the flour, 3/4 cup of the confectioners’ sugar, and the grated lemon peel. Blend in the melted margarine. Press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan and prick all over with fork.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes, or until golden.
- In a large bowl, beat the eggs. In a separate bowl, combine the granulated sugar, the baking powder, and the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Stir the sugar mixture into the eggs. Finally, stir in the lemon juice. Pour this mixture over the baked crust and return the pan to the oven.
- Bake for an additional 6 minutes, or until the filling is set. Allow to cool completely. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of confectioners’ sugar over the top. Cut into 20 squares.
Maw Books: I’ll be sure to let you know when I make them (edited to add: I made them!) I need lemons . . . Tell us a bit about your next book Surviving Junior High and when we can expect to see it in bookstores?
Donna Gephart: My new book is about a boy who wants to be the next Oprah, except he’s white, male and Jewish. He’s a smart, creative kid who has a terrible time fitting into junior high school. It mixes equal parts humor and heartbreak. I’m looking forward to its release in 2010.
Maw Books: That just makes me laugh. Can’t wait! Are you currently working on a third book? What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Donna Gephart: Yes, I’m struggling with a new novel. Oh, if only the writing were easy . . . it probably wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. My hopes and dreams for the future? You mean other than world peace, a stop to global warming and a 600-plus score in Scrabble? I’m still not quite sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I’m enjoying writing for young people and being involved in the children’s writing community. I hope to continue doing what I can to promote literacy as well.
Maw Books: Thanks Donna and good luck to you!
Donna Gephart: Thank you, Natasha. And thank you for your energetic work on behalf of the Darfur campaign. It was great getting to know you through that.