Q&A with Wendelin Van Draanen

I read Wendelin Van Draanen‘s Flipped a few years ago and still recommend it regularly to students looking for something funny with a touch of relationship interest. It’s perfect for middle school students in that it’s about navigating popular opinion and being authentic without being preachy. (It’s apparently going to be a movie, which seems like it would be great fun!) That’s the only experience I have with Wendelin Van Draanen’s books, but I happened to know that a young friend of mine at church is a huge fan of the Sammy Keyes books. When I saw that Wendelin was doing a blog tour for the new paperback version of Sammy Keyes and the Cold Hard Cash, I asked Blair if she would mind asking Wendelin some questions about the series. Here is what she came up with, along with Wendelin’s answers.

1. Which of the Sammy Keyes books can you relate your life most to?

Interesting question. I’d say it’s more that some of the characters and events are pulled from my life than that any of the books represent my life. I grew up with both parents, three siblings, and dogs. My parents also immigrated to the States, so I never really got to know my grandparents. Contrast that to Sammy who lives illegally with her grandmother and a cat in a high-rise and has (as far as she knows) no siblings, and you see there’s not much common ground. But Heather Acosta? I definitely had someone like that in my life. And some of the things Heather does to Sammy really happened to me. (Think sewing pin jabbed in the derriere …) So it’s really more that I borrow events from my real life. Of course, I may embellish them, or play them down (depending on how much I want my mother to know), but it’s easier to write about an event or situation when you’ve actually survived it. A good example of this is Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy. The solution to that mystery is based on a very frightening situation I found myself in while renting a room when I was in graduate school. I took the fear and shock from that experience and gave it to poor Sammy! In Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, Sammy finds herself in a basement with dangling black widow spiders. I’ve been down that basement. I can’t think of much more nightmarish than being trapped inside it. Again, poor Sammy! Hmm. Actually, the book that may best represent my life is probably Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things. We were big into backpacking when I was growing up, and so many of those things Sammy experiences out in the wild happened to us on one trip or another. Rattlers, ticks, scorpions, vultures, guys with guns, no water, getting lost, blisters … man, I’ve dealt with all of that. It was fun to revisit it from the comfort of my office and poke a little fun at it. So yeah. Okay. That’s the one.

2. What was the hardest Sammy Keyes book to write?

Definitely Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary. I had written the first four Sammys without a contract, so prior to their acceptance I had no deadlines or editorial revisions to deal with. Since I had a full time job teaching high school and two little kids, I’d been squeezing my writing around being a mom and being a teacher. But now in addition to writing Curse of Moustache Mary and meeting rewrite deadlines for the first four titles, my administration also assigned to me the overwhelming task of being the school’s yearbook advisor. It took me nearly two years to write Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary, and after I submitted it the editorial letter that came back to me was fifteen pages long, full of suggestions on how to make it better. I read the letter and cried.

3. I heard you ran the New York City Marathon, Did this experience have an impact on any of your books? (Note from Kari: Blair is a runner herself, so I thought this was a great question!)

I ran the NYC Marathon for the Exercise the Right to Read campaign—to put a spotlight on the importance of school libraries and to raise funds for libraries and kids who have no books. I’ve been a health-and-fitness runner my whole life, but never in a competitive way after high school, when I ran track. The marathon is a tough race and not one that I relish repeating (although I’ve now completed 5 for ETRTR). So I’m not a maniac runner, or someone who was so passionate about the “sport” that they could see writing a novel about it.

But I saw things in New York that I’d never seen before. My husband ran it with me and we were at maybe Mile 14 with the field still being very crowded. (It never did thin out to the point where you didn’t feel shoulder-to-shoulder with other runners.) So there we were, pushing along, definitely feeling the distance, when we came upon these two runners with a rope between them. And I’m thinking, What are these idiots doing with that rope? ‘cause it was blocking us, and this whole thing was hard enough on me without ropes in my way. And then I realize that one of the runners is blind and the other is his guide.

That was some moment for me. I, with my two long legs and two good eyes, thought running 26.2 miles was tough? How would I like to try it blind? I felt like such a whiny wimp.

Anyway, moments like that are the “seeds” I talked about yesterday. And this one was part of what eventually grew into my next stand-alone novel The Running Dream which will be out in January 2011.

So, to answer your question, yes! But not in the way I would ever have imagined.

Thanks for your questions, Blair, and thanks again to Kari for having me. I hope your readers will follow me to the next stop on the tour. I’ll be visiting Mrs. Magoo Reads tomorrow, where the Q&A will discuss mysteries in my real life, my writing process, and what I think about Nancy Drew. Hope to see you there!

Thanks to Blair for her great questions and to Wendelin for graciously answering them. You can follow Wendelin on her blog tour at the following spots:

May 31st: Where the Books Are

June 1st: Steph Su Reads

June 3rd: Mrs. Magoo Reads

June 4th: The Children’s Book Review

June 5th: Write for a Reader

June 6th: Mundie Moms

June 7th: Library Lounge Lizard

June 8th: Wendelin’s Jog Blog

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