Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Holly Thompson

I knew in my bones when I chose to mentor author Holly Thompson in the 2009 Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program that one day I’d be interviewing her as a Guest Teaching Author.
Today, of course, is that day!

Note: An autographed copy of Holly Thompson's YA novel Orchards awaits one lucky TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway Winner, courtesy of Random House. Details appear at the end of this interview.

I consider myself both lucky and privileged to have worked with Holly on the revision of her poignant and important novel in verse.
Delacorte Press/Random House released Orchards February 22.

The story belongs to Kana Goldberg, a Japanese and Jewish/American girl sent from her home in New York to spend the summer with relatives in Japan after the suicide of a classmate. She’s to reflect on her behavior, regain her sense of self and somehow turn darkness into light. Kana immerses herself in the tiny village of Kohama and the nearby mikan orchards, finding an unlikely haven amidst the village culture. She even forms a close bond with her tradition-bound grandmother. Gradually, Kana is able to come to terms with the pain and guilt she is harboring about the tragedy back home, until another tragedy strikes. Orchards handles the fraught topics of bullying and teen suicide with sensitivity and insight.

Publishers Weekly wrote: “Thompson eloquently captures a teenager’s anger, guilt and sorrow after a classmate takes her own life.”

Booklist commented: “Readers will want to talk about the big issue, especially the guilt of doing nothing.”

A long-time resident of Japan, Holly teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University. Her other titles include the adult novel Ash and the picture book The Wakame Gatherers. Holly continues to serve as the Regional Advisor of SCBWI-Tokyo.

I fell in love with Holly’s Japan as we worked on her novel. The novel is set in the southeast part of central Japan, in an area halfway between Tokyo and Osaka. In light of last Thursday afternoon’s indescribably-horrific earthquake and tsunami, I am happy to report: Holly and her family are safe.

How did you become a Teaching Author?

I have always been teaching and I have always been writing. My earliest teaching author opportunity was the summer after college graduation; one of my writing professors recommended me to work as an assistant to author Patricia MacLachlan in a creative writing workshop for children in western Massachusetts (rather incredibly, in a small world way, one of the guest author/illustrators that Patty brought in was my now fellow SCBWI Tokyo member Naomi Kojima). After that summer I taught English and biology at a private school, then English at a high school in Japan. All the while I was writing short stories. During graduate school at NYU, I taught creative writing to freshmen, as well as expository writing, plus I had the opportunity to work with poet Sharon Olds in the Goldwater Hospital Golden Writers program helping long-term care patients write and workshop poems. For a while, I was an adjunct instructor at Brooklyn College, but when my children were young and I needed to work at home, I shifted to freelance copyediting and editing work. I returned to the classroom soon after we moved back to Japan in 1998, and I have been teaching academic and creative writing at Yokohama City University ever since. I also do school visits at international schools and lead writing workshops for adult writers.

What's a common problem/question that your students have and how do you address it?

My university students are all non-native speakers and writers of English. Most are Japanese, some are from Korea, China or Southeast Asian countries, a few come from Europe, some have mixed heritage, and only several have lived in English-speaking countries or have an English-speaking parent. Most students who take my classes have never written much more than a paragraph in English, and most have never written poems or stories in their native language. Yet in my creative writing courses we dive in and from day one, we go to work writing poems and short stories in English. I think the big question my students all have is, “How can I write stories and poems if I’m not fluent in English?” And my answer is always to read well-crafted poems and stories in English, look at how they are made, look at what makes us react, note where we laugh and when we are surprised and when we are moved. After reading examples of poems that don’t present too many vocabulary challenges (I don’t want students to spend their reading time stuck in dictionaries), I have students brainstorm ideas and begin writing simply, using vocabulary and sentence structures they already know. Once they start sharing their stories and poems with each other, they begin to worry less about writing in a foreign language and more about plot and characters and poetic devices. It’s an exciting process to watch, and always a thrill to see the pride and amazement of the students when they hand in their final portfolios.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?

First, in general, do the writing assignments with your students. Know what you are asking of them. Share your own efforts at brainstorming and plotting, and your own attempts at completing poems and stories. You may not be able to keep up with every assignment each term if you teach many courses, but over the years, you should be able to try each assignment and share with students your efforts, the challenges you encountered, and the results. I have actually created some of my strongest poems and stories by doing my own assignments.

Second, an exercise that my students love: Cut out lots of magazine photographs of people—all types and in all sorts of situations. Set all the cut-out photographs on a table in the classroom. Assign each student a partner and have each pair select two photographs. Then have the student pairs create a story about those people in the photographs; the people in the photographs must be the story’s main characters. Give students about 15 minutes to come up with a plot outline, then meet in a circle to share stories. This is a good exercise to get students thinking about the range of possibility in stories…some of their plots are outlandish, some fantastic, some serious and dark. Some of their plots have sudden twists while others build tension more gradually; some have satisfying endings and others may be incomplete. This exercise is also a great way early in a course to get a sense of the types of stories that interest the students.

How did you come to write Orchards, your young adult verse novel?

Orchards is a novel that in many ways began writing itself. It’s a story that, sadly, would not go away, as it developed from the shock and grief after three suicides that touched my life—one the teenage daughter of a childhood friend, another my brother-in-law, and another a close friend’s wife. In the midst of all that, in between teaching, I was working in mikan orange groves doing research for an adult novel about a woman who marries into mikan growing family. I had done 18 months of research on mikan cultivation and agricultural village life, and though I was writing an adult novel set in that tiny mikan village setting, I began hearing the voice of a girl full of resentment because she has been sent to spend the summer with relatives in just such a village. I knew that she would be a survivor and that the hillside mikan orchards she worked in would result in much contemplation of what had happened to her classmate who’d climbed up into another orchard for a very different reason. Orchards raises important questions about bullying and teen suicide, and I hope that the novel will generate plenty of discussion among teens and adults.

What is your writing process?

Basically I write when I can. But I also teach, serve as the Regional Advisor of SCBWI Tokyo, and have a family. Finding focused time to write is my biggest challenge. So far I have tried to keep my teaching hours under control and arrange my weekly schedule such that I have two free non-weekend days when I can write. When the university term is in full swing, those two “free” days are often dedicated to reading and commenting on student work, but at least a portion of those days is always dedicated to writing. I try to have a number of different projects ongoing so that when I have writing time, I am energized and inspired to tackle at least one of my projects. I also do a fair amount of writing in my head when I am not actually at my keyboard, and I try to balance desk writing with just experiencing life and taking things in; I’m always listening and observing whenever I’m running or cycling or out exploring, wherever that may be. Of course, when I have an impending deadline for a story or book or article, I try to focus all my writing time on that particular work, and I have less outside time then. Being in Japan is an advantage in many ways—I am immersed in the culture that I am so often writing about, I can occasionally visit other Asian countries for a change in perspective, and I can see the U.S. from both an insider and outsider perspective.

Win an autographed copy of Holly Thompson’s Orchards!

To enter our drawing:

1. You must post a comment to today's blog post telling us why you'd like to win a copy of the book. (Will you keep it for yourself or give it as a gift to a young reader?)

2. You must include contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. Entries without contact information will be disqualified. Note: the TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].

3. You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, March 23, 2011. (The winner will be announced on Thursday,March 24.) Note: Winners automatically grant us permission to post their names here on our TeachingAuthors website.

4. You must have a mailing address in the United States.

5. You must respond to the notification e-mail and provide a mailing address within 72 hours, or the prize will be forfeited and an alternate winner will be chose.

Enjoy! Enjoy!

And, thank you, Holly, from this admiring fan's heart, for sharing your Writer's Life, process and newest work with our TeachingAuthors readers!

Esther Hershenhorn


Becky Fyfe said...

It sounds like a lovely book. I love book sthat are set in Japan. :)

Rebecca @ Fyfe dot net

Anonymous said...

I devoured Orchards already, and highly recommend it. Holly's writing is beautifully poetic, and you feel as though you are right there amidst the mikan on a hot summer day. While the subject of the book is saddening, it is important that we talk about these types of issues with young people.

Brenda said...

Orchards sounds amazing, and I'd love to win a copy. The thing that interests me the most is the combination of Jewish and Japanese culture. I can't think of any other books with characters like that. I would love to read the book and share it with my teen daughter, who loves tragic stories and novels in verse. Thanks for this great interview, Esther!
brenda at brendaferber dot com.

Unknown said...

Kana must have come to Japan with a lot of feelings in her mind after her classmate's death. I want to know how she regains her sense of self and turns darkness into light. I am Japanese living in NY who had lots of difficulties in living every single day when I was a student. I'd love to win a copy and keep it for myself. After I go back to Japan, I want to be a teacher. I'm sure this book will give me a lot of hints to help kids get over their difficulties. Now we, Japanese are very depressed about the devastating situation after the earthquake and tsunami, and radiation leak. But this interview teaches me something important. I wish I could help kids speak out their feelings, including fear, sadness or helplessness. Thanks for this interview.
mikako_s1 at hotmail dot com

Ellen Reagan said...

I love the idea of stepping away from one's life in order to gain understanding and cultivate new growth. (I am intrigued by the orchard metaphor and can't wait to see how it is developed in Thompson's novel.) I have a niece who is struggling in the aftermath of a friend's suicide last spring, and kept thinking of her as I read this interview. Thanks for an inspiring post.

ereagan60 at att dot net

Sandy Brehl said...

What a great interview, and congratulations, Holly!
I am so anxious to read this, then pass it on to my adult niece (young) who will undoubtedly share it with her many reader friends. The premise is very powerful, and the format of a novel in verse seems ideal for the context. Here's hoping I'll win it.

Sue Welfringer said...

Thanks for the great interview. I am especially happy for the teaching tips since I collect these from Teaching Authors to use with young people in my creative writing classes. I like the idea that if I write with my students, I might discover my own next great story! Also, I am looking forward to reading Holly's relevant & moving story, and then sharing it with my 13 year old daughter who heads to High School soon. I love how books forever remain a safe place for my children and me to talk about life's challenges. Bullying, suicide, eating disorders, cutting, drugs.... so much more = all of this to talk about, it's nice to have good books out there to help us start the discussion.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed learning tips from your blog. My fourteen year old daughter is always looking for a great read. She informs me that the school library needs to get more. Funding was cut last year and only a handful of new books were purchased. Orchard is a book that I know my daughter and several other middle schoolers would enjoy reading. The cultural aspect and issues will create deeper thinkers and entice conversation. If I would win the book, my daughter will read it first and then I will donate it the school library. :)MaryHelen Gensch

Anonymous said...

MaryHelen Gensch email

Lori Calabrese said...

So glad to hear Holly and her family are safe. This sounds like a wonderful book to share with young adults--thanks for a great interview!

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I would love to win a copy of this book! I have never read it. I am in the process of getting my teaching degree, and I love to write! I am always looking and learning! Reading is an adventure, but writing about your adventures is a lot of fun!

Anonymous said...

Oh and my email, because I got too excited, lol, is

Linda Kish said...

It sounds like a wonderful book. I will read it myself then share it.

lkish77123 at gmail dot com

Bobbi Miller said...

This sounds like a wonderful book! And, I so love the tips you offer in engaging students in the writing and storytelling process. Thank you!

Nancye said...

This sounds like a wonderful book. I have been personally touched by suicide and have seen what it's powerful clutches can do. I would like to read this book myself and pass it on to those who would benefit. Thanks for the chance.

nancyecdavis AT bellsouth DOT net