Interview with Award-Winning Author Betsy Franco

61+iGxQB0LLGet to know Betsy…

Betsy Franco is an award-winning author with over eighty books, including a young adult novel, picture books, and poetry collections, such as A Curious Collection of Cats, which received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award. She also writes screenplays, sketch comedies, and funnyordie videos. The four anthologies of teen writing she compiled, including Falling Hard, 100 Love Poems by teens, were honored by the American Library Association. She particularly loves to show people how wise teenagers can be, and how sassy, beautiful, and creative math can be.

Her latest book of fiction is Metamorphosis, Junior Year, a young adult novel; her first play, based on the novel, premiered in northern California in 2011. Metamorphosis is illustrated by her son Tom Franco and read on audio book by her sons James Franco and Dave Franco—James also produced a documentary of the making of the play. Betsy is an actor on TV (General Hospital) and in film (The Broken Tower), and is a member of Studio-33 Actor’s Collective and a sketch-comedy troupe called Suburban Squirrel. She is currently writing her first screenplay, based on a novel set at Stanford and polishing the sequel to Metamorphosis—The Art of Love. Betsy’s greatest inspiration is her three sons, who are fearless in their creativity. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

What initially drew you to writing?

When I couldn’t set up my oil paints because of my two young sons, James and Tom, I transferred my creative energy to writing. For writing, I only needed a pencil and paper. I had been an art major at Stanford and envisioned being a visual artist, but the energy transfer worked.

What was your favorite book to write?

METAMORPHOSIS, JUNIOR YEAR, is way up there with DAZZLING DISPLAY OF DOGS. Writing about the myths, in poetry and prose, in the voice of a teenage boy, was a dream. I’m most comfortable writing as a boy. Go figure. And dogs are just dang fun. I interviewed my neighbors and family about their dogs, remembered my childhood dogs, and stopped dog owners on the sidewalk.

Who is your favorite author?

Carson McCullers, Miranda July, and Toni Morrison. They have so much compassion for their quirky characters. Actually, I wouldn’t use “quirky” for Toni Morrison’s characters, but I think you get the point.

Where do you get your ideas?

I visit an elementary school around the corner every day, and have done this since my sons went there. I’m the constantly-visiting author. I also speak at high schools and ask the students questions and have them write answers to open-ended questions. Also, just listening to the teens who have roles in my play of METAMORPHOSIS as they talk with each other, and with me, has sparked lots of ideas. I even chaperoned a high school dance once. Actually, I get lots of ideas just walking around town. I always jot down weird, out-of-place things, tidbits from conversations of children and teens, contemporary topics teens are dealing with that I wasn’t aware of, instances of math in nature, etc.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

The book I’m working on is a YA novel called NAKED. I’m writing a screenplay of it at the same time. It takes place at Stanford and includes a bit of magical realism. The novel and screenplay are informing each other.

What advice would you give young writers?

It takes bullheaded stubbornness and hard work to be a writer. Learn how to take rejection and you can do anything. Every generation has writers (and other types of artists). Why not you?

What is the most valuable advice you’ve ever received?

My dad used to say if things were close to what I wanted, that was good enough. Things didn’t have to be perfect. Also, my sons show me by example how to be fearless in my creativity.

When are you the most productive?

When I first wake up, I don’t jump out of bed right away, as I used to. Some creative part of me is full of ideas. Morning is energetically the best time for me.

Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

I sometimes get a seed from a real person, but by the time I’m done with the novel, I can hardly remember who it was. Or I’ll invent a character and then put a seed of a real person into that character.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

BIRDSONGS didn’t take many revisions, but it took me ten years to figure it out in my head.

Hardest? Hmmm. The sequel to METAMORPHOSIS is taking quite a while but I’m almost there. I had to keep narrowing the focus, and each draft required a full revision. It’s called THE ART OF LOVE. I love my character Ovid, so I don’t mind hanging out with him. NAKED has taken longer than I expected, but I love writing it as well. I had to change from third to first person, I had to change the protagonist from the girl to the boy, I had to change to dual voices, and on and on.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

My screenwriting teacher at Stanford Continuing Ed, Adam Tobin, told us: When you’re revising a trouble spot, think of 10 ways to revise the scene you’re working on. It shoots you into creative mode instead of into revision mode.

Dream vacation?

I’d love to return to Florence where I lived in a villa for the Stanford-in-Italy overseas program years ago. I can see the statue of Michelangelo’s David and the sculptures surrounding him in my mind’s eye.


Interview with Award-Winning Author Kate Messner

MessGet to know Kate…

Kate Messner is the author of E.B. White Read Aloud Award winner THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and SUGAR AND ICE (Walker/Bloomsbury), the new MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series illustrated by Brian Floca (Scholastic), and SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY, a new first-day-of-school picture book illustrated by Andy Rash (Chronicle). Kate is also a National Board Certified middle school English teacher. She lives on Lake Champlain with her husband and two kids and enjoys hiking, kayaking, skiing, and traveling. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

My characters are all fictional, but most are also inspired by someone I’ve known or someone I’ve seen, and I tend to borrow tiny traits from lots of different people to make up a character. In The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., for example, Gianna’s best friend Zig shares my son’s trait of being fascinating by engineering and electricity, but his physical traits are like one of my former student’s, and the kind of friendship he shares with Gianna is like some of my friendships in middle school years ago.

What advice would you give young writers?

Read. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially in the genre in which you’d like to write. It will tune your ear to the music of really great writing, the rhythm of elegant sentences and powerful language, and it’s one of the best ways to learn what works and what doesn’t.

And write. Write every day if you can, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It keeps the creative part of your brain churning and even if much of what you write ends up living quietly on your hard drive forever, it’s the habit of writing that makes us writers…and makes it more likely that something we produce is going to be magical.

How many words do you write each day?

When I’m drafting a new book, I aim for a minimum of a thousand words a day.

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

I’m both, depending on the book. With my more plot-driven novels, I tend to start with an outline, but that always changes as the story develops. With some of my other books, I fly by the seat of my pants, but then I tend to have more messes to clean up during the revision process!

When are you the most productive? 

Definitely night, because that’s my usual writing time – from about 9-11 after my kids have gone to bed.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

It’s really important for me to “fill the well” after I’ve finished a project. I love to travel, and that always gives me great ideas for writing, and I also find that visiting museums is a huge inspiration.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

Right now, I’m working on a book that’s currently titled PROJECT 51. Like my 2012 Walker/Bloomsbury novel EYE OF THE STORM, it’s a science-gone-wrong story, and this one is set in the Everglades. I’m having fun with it!

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

It’s about voice, and it’s a story I’ve shared on my website because it’s been so important to me as a writer. Interestingly enough, it came from a co-worker in my former career as a broadcast journalist.

When I was just starting in tv news – reporting my very first stories as an intern at the NBC affiliate in Syracuse, NY, there was an anchorman who read all the scripts before the show. He was not particularly gentle or kind in his feedback, but I’ll always be thankful to him for the day he threw one of my scripts in the trash can next to his desk. I fought back tears and fished it back out.

“I’m not going to get better at this if you don’t tell me what’s wrong with it,” I said.

He stared at me for a second. “Do you want to learn?”

“Yes.” I stared back.

“Okay then.” He put the script down on his desk, smoothed it out, and proceeded to tear it apart. He was a brilliant writer and pointed out many things that I could do better, but his comment about voice is the one that has stayed with me.

“Why did you write this line like this?” he asked, pointing to one line that I thought sounded especially tough and journalistic. I thought it sounded like Sheryl Nathans, an investigative reporter for a competing station whose work I admired immensely, and I told him so.

“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “because the job of being Sheryl Nathans is taken. By Sheryl Nathans. You’re going to have to figure out how to say things your own way.”

That advice applies to writing books for kids, too. There are lots of terrific voices out there, and it’s fine to admire them and even emulate them once in a while, but ultimately, you need to find your own style and write in a voice that belongs to you and your unique characters alone.


Interview with Award-Winning Author Deborah Raney

Get to know Deborah…

Deborah Raney’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after 20 happy years as a stay-at-home mom. Deb’s 20th novel releases June 14 from Howard. She and her husband, Ken Raney, enjoy the wildflowers and native grasses in the Kansas prairie garden in their large back yard. They also love traveling together to conferences, and to visit four children and three little grandsons who all live much too far away. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

If this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?

I’d want to hug each of my kids and my three little grandsons, my parents and mother-in-law, but other than that, I think I’d just want to live an ordinary day. I’ve already had a wonderful life with no regrets that I haven’t already made amends for, so I think sitting on the front porch drinking coffee with my hubby (tea for him), working in our garden together––and maybe writing a really good chapter––would be the perfect way to spend my final day here on earth.

From idea to completion, how long does it take to write a book?

That’s been different with each book, but an average would be 7-8 months. What’s interesting is that the bulk of the words go on the page in the last 6 weeks of writing. It’s the research, character creation/development, and story/plot ideas that take the most time.

Was it easier to write before or after you were published?

Definitely before! When I started writing I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know much about the craft. I just wrote. I was like a little kid pounding the keys of the piano with joyful abandon, not hearing the discord in my own music. Now that I know how to “read music” it’s not nearly so easy, but it’s much more satisfying when I reach “the end” because I know I’ve written something that is worthy.

What would you like your life to look like in ten years?

Wow! That’s a great question. My husband and I have good genes, with grandparents who all lived into their late 80s and beyond. (One grandpa is still living at 101!) So we’ll probably still feel relatively young in ten years. I hope we have a dozen grandkids, live a little closer to all our kids (not easy when now they are scattered from Iowa to Missouri to Germany!), have a smaller home, smaller garden, even cooler office spaces, and still be enjoying working with the talents God has given us, but have plenty of time to spend with family and friends who fill our lives with such blessings.

How many words do you write each day?

My goal is always 1000. Early in a story, I may fall short of that many days because research and plot and character take precedence. But later in the process, I may write 2500 words a day without breaking a sweat. But 1000 is a good average.

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

Seat-of-the-pants all the way. Actually I’m trying to learn to plot at least a few chapters ahead, but more than that takes all the fun out of writing! I like the writing journey to be one of discovery, just as it is for the reader.

What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?

I have a pretty awesome writing studio as it is, but if I could remodel it, I’d take down the wallpaper, panel the room with white beadboard, add a full wall of white bookcases and a wonderfully funky overstuffed chair piled high with pillows.

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

I’d love to spend six months living in Europe with my husband, avoiding all the usual tourist stuff and just meandering through the countryside, touring tiny villages, and eating at sidewalk cafes along the way. Of course, I’d be writing a novel inspired by my adventures while I was there.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

Easiest was A Vow to Cherish, my first novel. Partly, because I didn’t know enough about writing then to know what I was doing wrong, and partly because, I think God knew I’d never write again if that one didn’t flow. By far the most difficult––and yet, one of my favorites––was A Nest of Sparrows. The research on that book about killed me, both because it was a tough topic, and because information was hard to come by. But I’m very pleased with the end result, and it won a ton of awards as well, which is always nice.

Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress? Or do you keep it a secret?

My philosophy is…the more people who read my book before my editor ever sees it, the better the book will be. Every author has tunnel vision, and when we allow others to read our work and when we apply their suggestions, we up the chances that we’ll speak to a wider audience. My parents, daughters, and several friends all give my manuscript a workover before it goes to my editors. I also work with a wonderful critique partner (mega mega award-winning novelist Tamera Alexander) so I know the value of letting someone else evaluate my writing before I say it’s done. Ultimately, I must be the final judge about my own work, but I love getting feedback from others.

If there is one genre you’d never write, what is it? 

One should never say never, but if I ever wrote a horror novel, it would shock me––especially since I’m president of the Big Honkin’ Chicken Club (a club inspired by the award-winning, best-selling novels of Brandilyn Collins––but which are too scary for me!)

Do you write with music?

Yes! I’ve discovered that movie soundtracks are just wonderful to write to! Because they are subtle and in-the-background, they don’t interfere with my thought process (I can’t have lyrics playing or suddenly instead of typing my story, I’m typing lyrics!) and because soundtracks are composed to evoke emotion, they tend to do that in me as I listen. A fun bonus of writing to music is that in essence, I create a soundtrack for my own novels. For example, when I listen to the soundtrack to Dances with Wolves and Legends of the Fall, I’m transported to Colombia, South America, the setting of my novel Beneath a Southern Sky, because that’s the music I listened to when I was writing that story.


Interview with Award-Winning Author Joan Frank

Feature-11Get to know Joan…

Joan Frank is the author of four books of fiction, with a fifth, a new novel called Make It Stay, coming out in early 2012. Joan’s recent story collection, In Envy Country, won the 2010 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, and was named a Finalist for the 2011 California Book Award. Her first novel, Miss Kansas City, won the 2006 Michigan Literary Fiction Award, and was nominated for a Northern California Book Award.

Her second novel, The Great Far Away, was also an NCBA nominee. Her first story collection, Boys Keep Being Born, was a finalist for both the Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Fiction Award and the Paterson Fiction Award. She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the Dana Award, Michigan Literary Fiction Award, Iowa Writing Award and Emrys Fiction Award, and recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Fund and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She holds an MFA degree from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC; has taught Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, and lives in Northern California. Check out her website.

Let the conversation begin!

What’s one rule you’re dying to break?

I love to read a certain kind of novel in which nothing much outwardly happens, in which most of the action is internal, psychological or emotional, and fairly intricate. (Wharton, James, Toibin, Brookner, Munro, Sebald; lately, Teju Cole’s Open City and Laura Furman’s The Mother Who Stayed are knocking me out.) Peter Handke’s Afternoon of a Writer takes place entirely in one man’s head, in the space of an afternoon and evening. The writer goes for a walk, has a beer, and goes home. I love these models, and I think that much of what I write is drawn, reflexively, toward them. So I already break one major rule, or at least one I presume makes the rounds regularly.

Easier to write before or after you published?

What an interesting question. I think that after my very first book of stories was accepted (Boys Keep Being Born, the University of Missouri Press, 2001), I felt it was a sign from the cosmos that I was doing something right, that I wasn’t crazy, and therefore I could go ahead and make new work with excited confidence—very much like the wooden Pinocchio becoming a flesh-and-blood little boy.

Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

I’ve written an entire lecture around this tasty subject. (Author David Huddle also made a good essay about it, called “How Much of That Story is True?”) The short answer: most of my characters come from people I’ve known, dismembered, and sewn together using new combinations of disparate (and made-up) body parts and personality elements. They’re Frankensteins. And they generate their stories.

Hemingway said this: From things that have happened and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason.”

What advice would you give young writers?

Be driven. Protect your health by every available means, so that you can stay driven.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Wear your heart on your sleeve, Joan, but not your writing.” In other words: do not give the game away. Don’t talk about work too much or explain it to death.

What one word describes you?


How many words do you write each day?

It doesn’t matter. Whether it is 50 or 1000, just getting some words down is the thing.

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

A famous author described the writing process as something like driving at night: only able to see the portion of road right in front of the car headlights. That’s how I do it. This is perhaps its greatest sustaining thrill: discovery. Often I’ve no idea where I am going or what will happen—or I have a vague idea, which gets fleshed out in a series of many passes.

When are you the most productive? 

Mornings are magic, whenever possible. But I’ll also squeeze the writing in absolutely whenever I can. You have to be a creative thief of time.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Exercise. Workouts, swimming, bicycling, hikes. It’s the new booze, I think. And reading, of course. Reading is food.

Do you let anyone read your WIP? Or do you keep it a secret?

At first, no one. When I feel it’s as ready as it can ever be I give it to one person, my dearest friend, who is also a writer and teacher, who has a superb eye and reading ear, and who’ll suggest any problems to me in a way that I know will not chop off my hands, will not traumatize me. Then I show it to my husband, who’s usually incredibly kind. Then, after I’ve made adjustments and revisions, out it goes into the world, looking for a home.

What are you working on now?

I’m happily working on a new novel, but cannot say more about that, because of the Silence, Exile and Cunning law cited above. Meantime, I’m offering both a novel and essay collection out there, awaiting news. The essay collection’s about the writing life, so although I can’t yet say more about it, I hope your readers will look for it when it appears! I also write occasional personal essays and regularly review literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. And I haunt the library!