Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born in Redwood City, California. But my family quickly moved to Denver, Colorado and then to Merrick, New York until finally settling amidst cactus and rattlesnakes in Tempe, Arizona when I was eight years old. This was the family car—a 1966 Mustang. I’m the youngest of six kids which meant I always had to sit over the hump in the back seat of the car with no room for my legs. I think that’s why I’m so short.
Q. Where do you live now?
A. I live in a community called Ahwatukee in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s only a few miles from where I grew up though it was empty desert back then. In fact, when I was a teenager we used to have bonfire parties where I live now. (Don’t tell my Mom.) I married my college sweetheart, Jake, and we have two awesome kids who hate to be referred to as awesome. We have a Shelty named Riley and a cat named Lola.
Q. Did you always want to be a writer?
A. Yep. In fact, I submitted my first story when I was thirteen. (And I got my first rejection letter then, too!)
But after college I was kind of hung up on the idea of earning a living. I was lucky to discover a career as an advertising copywriter: I got to come up with ideas and write TV commercials and get paid for it. But I missed making up my own stories.
I went back to school and got my MFA with an emphasis in playwriting from Arizona State University in 2004. Playwriting experience led me to a publisher who wanted me to write Reader’s Theater scripts for kids. So I did. And that led me to writing short stories for teens. And that gave me the confidence to try my hand at writing a full-length novel.
And here I am.
Q. What were you like as a teen?
A. I was a geeky, A-student-type. I played in the marching band, tried out for every school play and competed on the track team. Also, I was completely and totally boy-crazy. I wanted to be popular so badly that I tried out for the Pom Pom squad even though I didn’t have the coordination to chew gum and walk at the same time. Of course I never made it past first cuts.
Q. Did you have boyfriends in middle school?
A. Back in my day, girls with frizzy hair, thick glasses, crooked teeth and flat chests were not in demand. So, much to my devastation, no, I had no boyfriends in middle school or well into high school. I tormented myself with the idea that everyone else was gaining important dating knowledge while I was stuck home watching The Love Boat on Saturday nights. I practiced kissing on my pillow and gobbled up any story with a romance. To this day, I’m still a die-hard romantic. Maybe that’s why I seem to have a romance in all my stories.
Q. What were your favorite books growing up?
A. I loved Judy Blume, and especially Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I loved The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Lord of the Rings, Heidi, Watership Down, and almost any story about an orphan. (Don’t ask me why.) As I got older, I fell in love with angsty romances like Jane Eyre and especially Pride & Prejudice.
Q. How did you get the idea for your first novel, OyMG?
A. I think the original inspiration for OyMG comes from something that happened to me when I was a teenager. I was fired from a babysitting job when the family found out I was Jewish. Up until then, I’d always taken pride in my differences but I also wanted to be liked and accepted. It really shook me. I knew I wanted to write a story about a Jewish girl who is tested about her identity.
Q. Are any characters in this book based on you?
A. Not specifically, but bits and pieces of myself have filtered in through all my characters. I was argumentative like Ellie, and I had wild hair like Benny, and I always wanted to see my name on a plaque like Zeydeh. I can still remember when a classmate told me I’d killed Jesus and was going to H.E. double-toothpick (which happens to Ellie.) Oh, and I love matzo ball soup.
Q. How long does it take you to write a book?
A. For me, it happens in a series of steps:
First, I come up with an idea I like. I can come up with an idea in two days, or I can stew over one for many, many months. Writing a book is such hard work that I want to be sure I love the idea before I invest so much time and effort.
Second, I research a little and sketch out a rough outline. For OyMG, I attended a high school speech tournament and researched summer camps among other things. For A Matter of Heart, I spoke to lots of swimmers, talked with a cardiologist and had an EKG done. As a writer, I get a learn a little bit about a lot of things.
Third, I write a very rough draft of a book. I try to write this draft very fast, at least 1,000 words a day, every day. The important thing is to get it all down, not to make it perfect. Yet.
Fourth, I revise. This takes the longest. I edit myself, give it to my writing partner who edits it, give it to my critique group who edits it, give it to my agent who edits it, give it to my editor who edits it… Well, you get the idea.
When it goes smoothly, it can take six months to a year, start to finish. But every book is different and OyMG took more than two years because I got stuck in the middle and it took me a while to get unstuck. The first time I wrote Audition & Subtraction I forgot the plot. Oops! So that one took a while, too.
Q. Where do you get your ideas?
A. I wish I could say there was a store where I go and pick one up off the shelf. Because, honestly, for me, it can be hard to come up with book ideas. I tend to start with characters and I get so interested in who they are, I forget about a little thing called “plot.” (See above.)
One thing I do like to revisit when I’m stumped is my stack of diaries. Sometimes just the memory of a moment will work its way into a story. I’m so happy I kept diaries and I encourage kids today to start journals. After all, it’s the story of our lives and we get to be the hero.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. First of all, don’t waste your time looking for short cuts—I’ve searched and there are none. Don’t waste time preparing your acceptance speech for when you win a big award some day. (Yeah, I’ve done that too.) Don’t waste your time talking about wanting to write.
Instead—write. It’s the same advice you’ll get from every other author for one reason: It works.
So, here’s my advice.
Make writing a part of your daily life. You don’t have to sit down and come up with a finished book. But keep a journal or a diary. Keep a notebook of ideas. Start a blog. When you hear something that makes you stop and think, jot it down. Challenge your imagination with “What if?” questions. Sometimes I just take a blank page and write “What if” and then keep going.
Of course if you do come up with a short cut, let me know!
Q. I’ve written a book. What should I do next?
A. First of all, congratulate yourself! Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment in and of itself.
Second, there’s an amazing amount of great information on the web about editing your book, polishing it, writing query letters and submitting it to agents and/or publishers. In fact, much more than I can possibly share here. Do a Google search for the topic that interests you the most. You’ll turn up some great stuff. Here are a few good places to start:
Q. Wait, I have a question you haven’t answered.
A. I can’t promise to answer every question, but I can try. Send me your question below and I’ll do my best to post the answer on my blog.