Monday, January 30, 2012

Chatting with Kristin Levine

I recently met the lovely Kristin Levine at a DC Children's Book Guild meeting and had the pleasure of reading her terrific new book, THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK. It takes place in 1958 Little Rock, AR, and deals with the relationship of main character Marlee and her friend Liz, a black girl "passing" for a white one at school, until the day Liz must withdraw, because she's been found out.

Where did you get the idea for your new book, TLOLR?

My mother grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. I started asking her about her childhood, and in our very first conversation about Little Rock, my mother told me about listening to the lions roar at night. Something about that detail stuck with me. In addition, I attended very diverse public schools growing up, so the Little Rock Nine and school integration is something I've always been interested in.

What was the most difficult part of writing TLOLR?

It took me a long time to really understand the character of Marlee - which wasn't so great, since she was my main character! Once I did, the story finally started to flow. I also struggled with trying to figure out how to make my main characters, Marlee and Liz, as active as possible in the plot. I didn't want them to just observe the historical events going on around them; I wanted them to actively take part in making things change.

What was your favorite part of writing it?

I really enjoyed the research, interviewing people and gathering information. I also enjoyed doing the final draft, once I had the characters and conflicts down and was just deepening and changing things. It was the middle when I was muddling through, not even sure if the story was going to work, that was the hardest for me.

Did your process change at all from writing your first book?

Yes! My first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, started as a screenplay. I did lots of outlining, note cards, and actually had a complete story by the time I sat down to turn in into a novel. This time, I decided to just "start writing" because I was a writer, right? I knew how to do this. Ah, no. Turns out, I am not a "seat-of-your pants" kind of a writer. (I totally admire those of you who are!) I guess it was a good thing to learn about myself, but it was painful to realize I needed to go back and plot things out when I was already 170+ pages into the story.

As a busy mom with two small children, how do you find time to write?

This is the issue I struggle with the most. My mother babysits once or twice a week for a few hours, my husband helps out on the weekends, I try to make use of school and nap time, I've traded kids with friends, and there is always our collection of Disney movies if I get desperate and have a deadline. I had to work a lot at night after my kids were asleep when I was writing LIONS, which I did not really enjoy, but it was necessary.

On the other hand, kids can be a motivating factor too. It's awfully fun when my kids decide they want to play "book launch" or ask to look for my book on the shelf when we go to the library. They aren't old enough to read my books yet, but I really look forward to sharing my work with them in a few years.

Ultimately, I think that finding time to write is going to be an ongoing struggle while my kids are small. So instead of trying to totally solve this problem, I'm now just trying to accept it.

What do you do when writer's block hits?

I give myself permission to write something really, really bad. Basically, I have so little time to write, I can't afford to get writer's block. I force myself to write something, even if it is terrible, and usually after a while of terrible writing, something okay starts to come out. But if after an hour nothing good is coming, I'll stop and try again another day.

What's your favorite snack/drink when writing?

We have the most wonderful coffee shop near our house, so I love to hang out there. My favorite drink is probably tea - green or black with rice milk. They have the most delicious croissants and homemade pastries too.

Thanks, Kristin!