* * *Ann Angel believes it was amazing fortune that brought Janis Joplin’s music and style into her life. As a teen, Ann preferred writing bad poetry and drawing to Janis’s songs over following along with the popular girls. That same influence encouraged Ann to live her own life without compromise.
Since then, Ann has written many young adult biographies, including her most recent, Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. She served as contributing editor for the highly acclaimed Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories About Beauty and is working on more young adult fiction. A graduate of Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Ann lives in Wisconsin with her family and teaches creative writing at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.
Welcome, Ann! How did you become a Teaching Author?
I was a journalism teacher at a local two year college when I first started to publish articles and then books. Teaching gave me the security of an income and so I always did this part time. But my writing wasn't getting where I wanted it to go, so I returned to school for an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College and graduated in 1999. After that, I became a full-time professor at Mount Mary College, where I've taught since shortly before 1990 (so long ago that I don't recall the year I actually began) when the college created a graduate program in writing. I teach creative fiction and nonfiction there, along with Teaching Author JoAnn Macken.
What's a common problem or question your students have, and how do you address it?
Students tend to stop story to explain or describe. I give them the same sage advice I received from renowned author Norma Fox Mazer at Vermont College. Use the details you've already placed in the setting as props, filter them through your primary character, and you'll create a story that moves forward while also creating voice and tone in the story.
My books are probably great resources for teachers who wish to use literature while dealing with issues of self-esteem, self-image and bullying. Such A Pretty Face: Short Stories About Beauty offers teens a variety of perspectives on how teens view real beauty vs. the image of beauty that advertising offers. It surprised me when I finished Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing and stepped back from it a bit to realize that this book, while nonfiction, also deals with issues of beauty, fitting in, and self-esteem. Through both books, I've come to realize that perceptions of beauty play a huge role in bullying. Bullies pick on people because of their differences, and so some get bullied because we don't have the sort of looks the rest of the culture admires or because we have too much of the looks admired in a culture. Stories in Such A Pretty Face certainly deal with coping in these instances. And Janis's story is so clearly one of a woman who rose above bullying with her voice.
Another book I wrote, Robert Cormier: Author of the Chocolate War, offers some tremendous insights into book challenges, censorship, and one author's efforts to fight censorship. Ironically, although he died in 2000, Cormier remains one of the most censored authors of the previous decade and continues to be listed as one of the top ten most censored authors of the year.
Can you share a funny or interesting story about how you got interested in writing?
I don't recall ever not writing. It's as if I was born to tell stories. I even have the first story--illustrated--that I ever wrote. It's a pencil drawing from about first or second grade where I drew my whole family and then wrote characteristics above each person. For my oldest sister, I wrote, "Katie yells a lot." For a little sister, I wrote, "Lulu cries a lot." Over my own head I wrote "I help the most." I look at that and think I was a fiction writer in the beginning.
When I go to schools to talk about writing, I often talk about how I choose my writing topics to focus on issues kids face. I can be talking about censorship and bullying or self-image issues, and inevitably a student will raise his or her hand and ask me, "Do you have any pets?"
For the record, I have a wicked little cat named Sparkie who fits her name perfectly.
Why do you write biographies for teens?
There is so much we can learn from entering the space of another person's life. It allows us to see how others think and behave, and it gives us a glimpse into the human condition in a way that is so real. We can learn from the lives of others. For instance, Janis Joplin was my role model. She gave me the courage to stop following along with the crowd and to do my own thing. Her death became my cautionary tale.
Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?
The title of this exercise is "Who Is Listening?" Turn on the radio or turn on your iPod or click on music you've never heard before. As you listen to the song, freewrite and create a character listening to this song at the same time. As the song plays, describe the character and setting. Now listen to the song again and describe how this character is responding to the music and why. Would this character feel differently about this song if s/he weren't also dealing with ________?
* * *Thank you for joining us, Ann! We wish you and your books continued success!
Readers, before entering our contest, please read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then, for a chance to win an autographed copy of Ann Angel's new book Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, post a comment to today's blog post telling us some sage advice you received about writing and who gave it to you. To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. Friday, November 26, 2010 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be chosen in a random drawing and announced by 11 p.m., Saturday, November 27, 2010.