Writing Tips and Interview with Daphne Grab

I am pleased to welcome Daphne Grab, debut author of Alive and Well in Prague, New York to my blog.  Alive and Well in Prague, New York was just released at the beginning of this month.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s probably best to reveal I love her blog, The Longstockings, that she shares with her seven critique buddies.  They offer up writing advice, general publishing information, and share their writing concerns on their blog.  So it should be no surprise that Daphne offers up some great writing advice in her interview!  Daphne is also a member of Class of 2k8–she’ll be featured on their blog this week, so go check it out!
Here’s the synopsis from the front cover flap of Alive and Well in Prague, New York: Matisse Osgood is a New York City girl through and through. She buys her clothes at Andy’s Cheapies, watches indie films at the Angelika, and wouldn’t be caught dead on a hayride. But when her father gets sick and Matisse’s parents decide to leave Manhattan for a small town in upstate New York, her perfect world crumbles. As Matisse trudges through life in Prague, she dreams of waking up in her apartment on West 78th Street with a father who’s well enough to walk with her in Central Park and a mother who doesn’t pretend that everything is okay. When rumors surround Matisse at school and her father’s symptoms worsen, Matisse realizes that the friends she’s making in Prague are the kind you can count on. They help Matisse find the strength to reach out to her father, who may not be as far from her as she thought. And one particular farm boy shows Matisse that country living is a lot more magical than she ever imagined.
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You know how I’m not into giving away anything about the story.  But, I will tell you I enjoyed reading this book.  If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know my sister has a debilitating illness.  I can tell you from first hand experience that chronic illness shatters the family life in so many ways.  While it would be difficult to encompass all the emotional turbulence in one book (and I’m not too sure teens would want to read about all the darkness, anyway), Daphne does a good job capturing Matisse’s vulnerabilities, heartbreak and struggles to accept her father’s illness and her new life.  This is a story with heart, great characters, and a sassy voice.  Go and read this!
Without further ado, I give you Daphne Grab…
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HWM: What made you realize you wanted to write children’s books?
Daphne: Two things coming together: first, long after I’d left my teen years I was still reading teen books, hiding the covers when I read on the subway since I felt like a thirty-something- year-old woman should be reading adult books. And second, I’d always wanted to be a writer but I could never think of a story to write. Then one day I got a catalog from the New School about their MFA program and I saw that they had a concentration in creative writing for children. Bells went off as two things came together and I knew that that was what I wanted to do. And one of the greatest things about being part of the kidlit community is that I now feel proud to read teen and MG books, and I hold the covers high when I read them on the subway!

HWM: I understand your dad inspired your book, Alive and Well in Prague, New York. What difficulties did you have (if any) writing this book, and how did you stay focused on Matisse’s story?
Daphne: My dad had ALS which has certain similarities to Parkinson’s, but is different enough that I didn’t get caught in writing my own story but was able to write Matisse’s. That said, I definitely drew on my own feelings of what it was like to have a sick parent who I knew would not get better. It’s such a profound and life changing experience and there are moments of fun and goodness mixed in with the sadness of knowing time is limited. I wanted the book to show that and also to show the struggle to accept things that are really hard, but it was important to me that it not be my own story, so I made sure Matisse and her circumstances were very different from my own. That freed me up to make it hers.

HWM: How did you celebrate the release of your book?
Daphne: I had a book party! It was at the Bank Street Bookstore and I had such a wonderful time- friends and family came, my kids ran around talking to everyone (they are three and a half), my awesome agent came and my wonderful editor introduced my reading. And of course my NYC writer friends, including the local Longstockings came. It was such a neat night.

HWM: It’s difficult for people to understand degenerative illnesses. You cap
tured the family crisis so well in your book. What do you hope teens will get after reading your book?

Daphne: My hope would be that it is an empowering read, the kind of thing that affirms people being true to themselves. I’d be pleased if it if also offered comfort to teens facing different kinds of obstacles in their lives. So often people feel alone when struggling with something and I love the thought that this book might help some readers feel less alone.

HWM: I love Matisse’s voice. When did you know you had the right voice for her?
Daphne: Her voice came to me right away, which doesn’t always happen but which made it easier to write. I think I imagined her as really different from me as a teen— confident and outspoken, where as I was a bit shy and very concerned about what other people thought of me. I wanted her to be different so that I’d be sure to keep the story hers and not slip into making it mine. It was fun to write someone so sassy and self assured!

HWM: I understand you’ve just sold your second book. Congratulations! What inspired this story?
Daphne: Well, I am a huge football fan and my husband most decidedly isn’t. A few years ago we were driving home from a vacation, the kids were sleeping in the back and I was talking his ear off about football training camp which had just started. Finally he said, “you should write a book about being a football fan.” I knew he was hoping I’d channel some of my football talk into a book but the idea took root and I came up with the story of HALFTIME. My writing group and agent helped me get it into shape to sell and I’ll start edits on it this summer.

HWM: What other projects are you working on?
Daphne: I’m currently working on a rough draft of what I hope will be my next teen book.

HWM: What do you like writing the most: the beginning, middle or end? Why?
Daphne: Hmm, that’s a tough call between beginning and end. In the beginning things are fun and fresh and you don’t have to worry about making everything fit together just yet. In the end it’s exciting because it’s all coming together. It’s the middle that’s tough for me, keeping up the tension, making sure you’ve seeded things so they make sense. That’s where I am with my WIP and I’m so glad I have this interview to do instead of trying to make headway with that!

HWM: What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career and how did you tackle it?
Daphne: Recognizing that critique is a helpful tool. When I first started workshop classes at the New School I was devastated by critique. I remember the first time I shared pages a girl in the class (not a Longstocking) said, “I read these pages and thought, so what?” I felt like she’d slapped me, and perhaps that was a bit harsh. But what she was saying was that my book was starting too slow and there wasn’t anything to root for yet, both things I needed to work on. Now when I hear critique it can sting but I am always thinking about how I can use it to make my story stronger.

[HWM’s Note: Probably one of the hardest things to do is to take out scenes…This was one of Daphne’s favorite scenes…and it was cut from the book!]

HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?
Daphne: How amazing and supportive the kidlit world is! It would be so easy for people to be cliquey or competitive and for the most part it feels like one big love fest of people celebrating kids books.

HWM: I read in Sea Heidi’s interview with you about the importance of finding the right fit with an agent.  What are some things you think writers should consider before signing up with an agent?
Daphne: When you get that first offer from an agent it’s so thrilling that it kind of sweeps you off your feet. That first time for me I was so happy someone really liked my work and wanted to represent it that I didn’t think about the fact that I’d be setting up a long term relationship with this person. 

Entrusting someone with your career is a really big deal- this is the person who will advise you and be your champion, and you want to be on the same page, wanting the same things and agreeing on how to best get them. In some ways it’s like a marriage and while you just need a conversation or two to decide who’s a fit, you want to be sure to have that conversation and get a good feel for this person’s thoughts on your career. 
Have questions ready and take note of the communication between the two of you. If things like fast email responses are important to you (they are to me) then ask about it. Think about the little details as well as the big picture stuff. If more than one agent wants you (which is often the case) don’t be scared to take the time to talk to everyone and ask people to wait a few days while you figure things out. Most agents will understand and want you to make the choice that is best for you. I love my agent now and am so happy that with my second agent search I took the time to find just the right person for me.
HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever
gave you?

Daphne: To write the story you have and not try to write what you think will sell or what you think other people want to see. Just write the story you want to write.
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HipWriterMama’s Curiosities:

HWM: I love The Longstockings blog. What is your favorite post from the blog?
Daphne: Coe had a spoof on HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON that really cracked me up.

HWM: Do you have any plans to start your own blog?
Daphne: I love sharing a blog with the ladies of the Longstockings and at this point it fills the blogging need in my life. But never say never!

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your teen years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Daphne: I’d love to be Matisse and bring some of that sass into my high school life!

HWM: What makes you laugh?
Daphne: My kids crack me up everyday. Three year olds just have the funniest perspective on life!
Thank you Daphne!
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Other Places to Find Daphne:
Cut Scene from Alive and Well in Prague, New York This is one of Daphne’s favorite scenes…and she had to cut it from the book!
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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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