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Monday, November 17, 2014

Q and A with Christine Heppermann with Everything from True Life Stories to Retelling Fairy Tales

Many chickens were rescued by the Chicken Rescue just outside downtown Minneapolis, Minn. This may be a bit of a spoiler or stating the obvious about the events in Christine Heppermann’s first book "City Chickens."  My lips are sealed regarding the outcome of any princesses, daughters of giants or millers or any of the other characters in Christine’s newly released poetry book, "Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty."

The poetry book uses themes from familiar fairy tales and nursery rhymes. It is a young adult book written for a teen audience. A few poems have mature content and an occasional PG-13 word. After reading the book and examining the messages about body image, beauty, and roles of women, I think that society needs to take a hard look in the mirror. Preferably, one very large enchanted mirror showing society as it is and society as it could be.

One of my favorite poems uses themes found in the children’s story the Three Little Pigs. I do not think I count any little pigs in this version, but there is a big, bad wolf at large. Christine made it her own. What a powerful message is infused between the stanzas!

The poems sink deep into the heart. As a gifted poet, the author gives voice to what I think may be the innermost feelings of many of the readers.

When it comes to writing poetry on almost any subject, you ought to have some fun. Christine did that! I think she would agree that at times the poems seemed to take on a life of their own.

In beginning the leg work of City Chickens, Christine set out as an objective journalist doing what a good journalist should do when writing powerful non-fiction, but fortunately she did not check her heart at the entrance to the rescue. I did not expect to find such a compelling story between the covers of the book. Not only did it open my eyes to the conditions of abused chickens, but it also made me see chickens in a whole new light as a potential fine feathered foul friend! The biographical detail of the couple who run the chicken rescue and the way she frames the story makes this a great read for children and adults. The arrangement of bright photographs both large and small and sometimes in somewhat collage is very inviting as they tell their own stories.

City Chickens had the distinction of making the Junior Library Guild selection list.

Poisoned Apples is already making very important lists including the best books of 2014 by Publisher’s Weekly.

Below is a Q and A with Christine: (I loved the insights and think you will too)

1. Q: What made you decide to write for children and young adults?

A: I don’t feel as if I ever made a conscious decision to write for children and young adults. As far back as I can remember, it’s what I’ve wanted to do. My all-time favorite books are novels I read when I was young, such as The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh, and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle. I read those books and many others over and over, sometimes until they fell to pieces. In college (at Trinity University) I majored in philosophy, mostly because I’m not a very practical person and am more comfortable with the abstract than the concrete. But even then I knew I wanted to somehow fashion a career around children’s literature. Lucky me, after my husband and I moved to Boston in 1990, I landed an internship at The Horn Book Magazine, the children’s literature review journal I went on to write for. Around that same time I found out about the children’s literature master’s program at Simmons College and enrolled. It was heaven! Two years of reading and writing about books for children and young adults. From there I reviewed for newspapers and magazines for many years. It wasn’t until I started in Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults in 2009 that I finally got brave enough to start—and, more importantly, finish—book-length manuscripts.

2. Q: You write poetry, fiction, non-fiction, biographies, for children, young adults and teens (the list may go on). What do you like about having diverse ways to express yourself and diverse audiences?

A: When I started at Hamline, I thought I only wanted to write nonfiction, partly because I love nonfiction and partly because I was intimidated by the challenge of making stuff up. My third semester I had an advisor, Jane Resh Thomas, who prodded me into working on a novel, which then became a poetry project. And I have to say, no matter if I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, my process is pretty much the same. I’m not a fast writer! I think hard about each sentence, each word, and whether I’m saying what I truly mean. Nonfiction writing should be graceful and vivid. If not, it’s an encyclopedia entry. Poetry should be clear and grounded in specific detail. If not, it won’t catch readers and hold them.

3. Q: In reading your book City Chickens, I felt that you really capture the spirit of the couple running the rescue. What process do you use for writing biographical books of living and historical people? Do you feel certain closeness to the people that you write about?

A: One of the gifts of researching and writing CITY CHICKENS was getting to know Mary Britton Clause and Bert Clause, the owners and operators of the Minneapolis animal shelter Chicken Run Rescue. Not only did they introduce me to a new way of thinking about chickens—as companion animals, not food—but they entrusted me with adopting two of their rescue birds. Kandinsky, a Polish-crested bantam hen, and Yeti, a Japanese silkie rooster, became part of our family, and I talk about them in my author’s note. (They’ve both since died of natural causes.) My other nonfiction books were work-for-hire projects with tight deadlines, so I did all my research via the library and online. Still, I ended up feeling a certain connection with each of my subjects. For instance, when I wrote about Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, I loved learning that he’s always been fascinated by maps, that he envisioned Twitter as a big interactive map connecting people around the world.

4. Q: I have been immersing myself in your recently released Poisoned Apples Poems for You My Pretty today. It made me think about how creativity is described at looking at something upside down. You seem to look to go further and go to the core and heart of the stories as well as provide twists. Can you talk some about the creative process?

A: What a great description of creativity! Mostly I approached the poems in Poisoned Apples by first picking out a character and wondering how she’d feel in a certain situation. Obviously for the poems inspired by personal memory, that wasn’t so hard! I knew how I felt, or at least I did my best to remember. But with the fairy tale characters, I let myself imagine beyond the scope of the original stories. In the poem “Ugly Stepsister,” for instance, I depict one of Cinderella’s stepsisters falling into depression after Cinderella is married and gone. In “Assassin,” I wondered whether the Wicked Queen’s jealousy and paranoia would end once she killed Snow White, or whether the mirror would parade more gorgeous girls before her and she’d have to get rid of every one of them in order to remain “the fairest.” Now that I think about it, a lot of the poems are about the mental and physical fatigue of trying to be beautiful and perfect and loved. Some of the characters, such as Goldilocks and the Gingerbread Girl, respond by running away. Others stay and take out their dark feelings on themselves: Snow White starts cutting; Rapunzel stops answering the calls from below and stays in bed. The girls in the contemporary poems act similarly. In our society, there’s so much pressure on young women to live up to almost impossible standards of beauty and behavior. Sometimes it seems like the easiest way out of that whole maze is to make yourself disappear.

5. Q: Many of the poems in Poisoned Apples talk about beauty and body image in a way that really makes me think about the messages that society sends to girls and women. Your words are strong and bold and not minced in places as far as I can tell. In other places, your meaning may be more understated. I don't think it is right to ask you what is meant by a certain poem or your work in general as that needs to read and experienced by the individual reader. However, I wonder if there is a message that you want to spell out plainly for those who care about girls and young women and their body image. Are there any thoughts that you care to share?

A: I guess the main message I want to get across to girls is that they matter. Their problems matter. Teenagers so often aren’t taken seriously by adults. I want to say, no, I don’t think you’re just going through a phase or “acting out” to get attention. I think you’re reacting to a world that doesn’t always give you the respect and acknowledgement you deserve.

6. Q: I feel that we went to a high school with a fine College Prep program and an excellent English program. Do you have any thoughts on how your high school experience started you on your journey of writing and life?

A: My junior-year humanities class, taught by Mrs. Havlick, is where I truly connected with poetry for the first time. Boy, did I connect! I worshipped Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath, and I worshipped Mrs. Havlick for respecting our intelligence enough to introduce us to such dark, dazzling, complicated poets who never seemed to worry about whom they might offend. The class was like a secret refuge for me. I generally enjoyed school and got good grades, but I don’t remember ever feeling wildly, almost desperately enthusiastic about anything I learned outside humanities. “My Dinner with Andre,” which I saw for the first time in that class, is still one of my favorite movies. I love it because, like the poetry, it gave me permission to question things I’d always taken for granted. We grow up assuming life has certain rules. Well, what if the rules are arbitrary? I think that’s one of the questions at the heart of POISONED APPLES: do we have to put up with these arbitrary rules, or can we change them? Can we demand better?

7. Q: What other works that are currently in print or soon to be in print have the by line Christine Heppermann?

A: The first volume in an early chapter book series I’m co-writing with my friend Ron Koertge will be published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins this summer. It’s called BACKYARD WITCH: SADIE’S STORY and it’s about a nine-year-old girl who has a witch living in her old playhouse. Two more books in that series are set for publication, one in 2016 and one in 2017. Currently I’m working on a young adult novel-in-verse tentatively titled SPIRIT WEEK and narrated by a girl who goes to an all-girls Catholic high school. That one’s more than a little scary for me! It’s a questioning of a lot of the beliefs I was brought up with, but, as you can probably tell from my previous answers, I don’t think asking questions is a bad thing.

Give Christine access to interesting subject matter. Ask her a few inferential questions such as what might happen if…, how do you think the character felt when... or what could happen next…?

Wait for work, talent, and inspiration to intersect.

What happens may even surprise even Christine.

-population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan
© 2014 population-we, LLC 
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