Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Interview with Author Donna Gephart

Celebrating Day 2 of Darcy Pattison's Random Acts of Publicity.

Gephart: Embracing her inner nerd.

I met Donna Gephart through a lucky accident: We were stuck in line for a bus at last year’s SCBWI-Florida conference. Which was my great good fortune, since she invited me to come to the monthly SCBWI critique group she co-hosts in Palm Beach Gardens (the group just celebrated its seventh anniversary). Donna has made her mark with gut-bustingly funny middle grade novels about smart, quirky kids; her newest book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, about a girl determined to get on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, comes out in March from Delacorte Press/Random House (pre-order it at Amazon and Barnes and Noble).  Her most recent novel, How to Survive Middle School, received a starred review from Kirkus and School Library Journal (click here for the singing hamster video).  Her first book, As If Being 12-3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Visit Donna at http://www.donnagephart.com, where you'll also find out she makes a mean lemon square and apple cake.

Questions for Donna Gephart:

 I’m always curious how writers choose the genre they write in (or does the genre choose them?) Did you try writing other genres of fiction before you settled into humorous middle grade, or did this category appeal to you strongly from the get-go?

I tried everything from picture books through adult novels. The twelve-year-old voice was the one that rang true, the one that worked. I suppose there's a twelve-year-old lurking inside me, and she apparently has a lot to say!

What’s the hardest thing about writing for kids?

I love writing for kids. And the hardest thing is probably revising until your head wants to spin around in different directions, but doing it anyway. The ability to do substantive revisions as often as necessary is the difference between being published or not, whether writing for children or adults.  

In today’s market, what do you think an aspiring kidlit writer really needs to do/know/focus on to be successful? Is just writing a fantastic book enough?

"I think it's essential to know what's been done in your genre."

If it's picture books, KNOW picture books from past and present. If it's middle grade novels, make sure you've read classics and contemporary novels by the scores. For YA, thumb through Twilight and you're good. Kidding! We have to know what came before so we can be stunningly original in our own writing. We have to create something so compelling an editor can't say, "No."  Our storytelling must be exceptional. I learned a lot about the art of telling stories from Robert McKee's book Story.  
You’re working on your fourth book now. In what way is writing your fourth harder or easier than the first one?

It's good to know that I am able to write and revise a publishable novel. And it's good to know I already have an agent and an editor waiting to read my new book. But the writing -- starting a new project and keeping with it -- doesn't get easier.

Do the ideas for your novels come to you whole, or do you test and discard many before you start actually writing the first draft?  Have you ever discarded a partly (or entirely) written book?

Hmm. There is a 400-page novel in a filing cabinet that my agent nicely told me wouldn't sell. She was right. I'm grateful for her guidance. I have reams of pages that never made it into a book, but they are necessary for the two hundred or so pages that do make it in.  I believe no effort is wasted; it's all practice.  

Which issues of craft have been most challenging for you?

Even though it's short, I have a hard time with the form of a picture book. It's uniquely challenging, but very rewarding. As far as novels, I have a hard time with the logic sometimes.  I might have three Tuesdays happen in a row or have winter follow summer. And I don't write fantasy! I'm always caught up in the story and lose track of those details.

Your main characters are sort of nerdy, or super smart, or “outsiders” in some sense. Can you talk a bit about that? Do you have a favorite among your “babies”?

"I'm sort of nerdy and felt like an outsider when I was younger. It takes a while to find one's tribe."

Who knew those feelings of not belonging would make for great fiction? I feel like I write for those young people, who were like me as a child, in need of a friend, even if it's in the form of a book. Especially if it's in the form of a book. Now, I embrace my nerdiness and wear it proudly.  

I love the characters in all of my books, but Olivia in my new book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, is probably the most autobiographical. And I'm madly in love with Olivia's little "bother" Charlie, who spouts gross trivia and dresses as Armpit Bacteria Man.  

If you couldn't be a writer, what would you be doing?  

I'd be a children's librarian and writing secretly (because I have to write).  Or maybe a food taster at Ben & Jerry's.  Or Brad Pitt's personal assistant.  Or . . .


  1. Great interview! Donna seems so fun; I will most certainly check out her books!

  2. Donna, you already know I'm a fan of yours. I hope you garner a whole new bunch of groupies from this interview.

    I love the question about writers choosing a genre or the genre choosing them. I'm always fascinated to hear how writers end up in their desired area, and want to slap those people who can write pretty much anything with no trouble at all. Regardless, you've absolutely found your spot with humorous MG. You're so great at it. Can't wait for Olivia Bean!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  3. I'm fortunate enough to be in Donna's writing group, so I am privileged to hear the early drafts of the works she turns into riotous, publishable manuscripts. I remember sitting there as Donna introduced us to Olivia Bean, or should I say, Olivia allowed herself to be introduced by Donna? I can vouch for the fact that Donna's fans are in for a real treat when Olivia arrives in stores next spring.

  4. Thank you, Gail, for interviewing me for your wonderful blog. And thank you, friends, for the lovely, lovely comments.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this interview!

    Interesting point about knowing what's been done before in the genre. I know some advise not reading in the same area, so you don't copy or emulate, but I've always enjoyed reading and finding out what other authors have written. :)

  6. I too enjoyed reading through this interview. It's always interesting to see how authors come to their genre because I've been oscillating between a few recently.

  7. I love how we bump into important people at random times (like you meeting her at the bus stop)! Just letting you know, ta dum! I've given you an award. It's on my blog so come check it out!