Monday, November 3, 2008

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Last week, I asked author Helen Hemphill how she felt about writing for guys and writing from a male perspective. This weekend, I posed some of the same questions to author Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, whose newest novel for kids, The Floating Circus, involves an injured orphan boy, a freed slave, an elephant, and a circus boat.

Do you approach your stories differently depending on the gender of your protagonist?

I'd like to say no, but when I wrote The Floating Circus I really concentrated on what my 12 year-old son, Cole, would like to read and I know that influenced my choices to make it feel more adventure-novel than historical.

Do you feel comfortable writing in a male voice? What are the challenges you face when writing in a male voice - and/or writing for boys?

As a writer, I get to access that part of myself which is more masculine, and that's lucky because in society we don't allow ourselves much wiggle room in this arena without serious social repercussions. I will tell you that the cadence, word choice and rhythm of Solomon's words is based off the way my dad speaks. I hear his voice whenever I read Solomon's words.

Your first and second novels (Reaching for Sun, 42 Miles) were narrated by girls, your third (The Floating Circus) by a boy. Do you feel as though there are 'girl books' and 'boy books?' Do you, like me, try to get those gender-based divisions out of the minds of readers?

I think girls have the advantage here because they don't feel self-conscious about reading whatever books they want. Anything I can do as a teacher to expand wider appeal, I try to do. I'm always pushing books on kids no matter their gender!

The Floating Circus is your first prose novel, as the two which preceded it were verse novels. Was Circus ever planned to be poetry? Did it feel strange (for lack of a better word) to write in prose?

After many years, I had developed a certain confidence in writing free verse poetry and I was uncertain whether I could reach this milestone in prose. Cheerleading from my writing partner, Julia Durango and my editor, Melanie Cecka, really helped when my insecurities had a carnival inside my head.

The title of The Floating Circus changed at least once, didn't it? Did the storyline or ending ever change?

It was originally titled The River Palace but we thought the word "palace" might not appeal to boys (see, that gender issue again) and Shannon Hale's River Secrets was on the same list. That was one too many rivers!

The appearance of Little Bet was as big a surprise to me as it is to Owen. When I revised the story I weaved Little Bet more completely into earlier scenes. This was one of those magical moments that kept me chained to my laptop!

Were they transported into present-day, what do you think Owen or Solomon would make of our contemporary world?

I think Owen would be enthralled with all the technology (and probably love YouTube like my own son) in the same way he was astonished by the Palace’s technology of that time. Solomon, I hope, would meet only people who deserved to know him.

Do you prefer to write in first-person or third-person? Is that decision influenced by the gender of your protagonist?

I really struggle with point-of-view in my books. I like how immediate first-person feels (though this is one issue that has nothing to do with gender) but I think it is confining. Third person has that wonderful storyteller’s distance but can sometimes make the reader feel removed from the main character.

When your kids were little, what were their favorite books?

Abbie LOVED anything by Lisa Wheeler. Here is a link to her 'reading' her favorite one at four. Cole loved classic children's lit stories like Corduroy, Goodnight Moon, and Harry the Dirty Dog.

What do they like to read now?

Now Abbie likes, and I quote here, "pretty much anything by Cynthia Rylant." Cole may be Margaret Peterson Haddix's biggest fan.


The Floating Circus is now available in stores and libraries everywhere.

Read my 2007 interview with Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.

Visit the author's website.

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