Friday, February 19, 2016

Author Interview: Lee Gjertsen Malone and THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S

Next Tuesday, February 23rd, a debut middle grade novel will be hitting bookstore shelves: THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S, by Lee Gjertsen Malone. Here's the gist:

"Seventh grader Jeremy Miner has a girl problem. Or, more accurately, a girls problem. 475 of them to be exact. That’s how many girls attend his school, St. Edith’s Academy.Jeremy is the only boy left after the school’s brief experiment in co-education. And he needs to get out. But his mother—a teacher at the school—won’t let him transfer, so Jeremy takes matters into his own hands: he’s going to get expelled.Together with his best friend Claudia, Jeremy unleashes a series of hilarious pranks in hopes that he’ll get kicked out with minimal damage to his permanent record. But when his stunts start to backfire, Jeremy has to decide how far he’s willing to go and whom he’s willing to knock down to get out the door."

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of the book, which I devoured in just a couple of days. It was witty, warm, hilarious and charming. I definitely agree with Kirkus, which called it a "spectacular debut" in a starred review. You all should definitely go out pre-order a copy yourself - it's a wonderful, lively yarn that's sure to keep you turning the pages. You can check it out on INDIEBOUND or on AMAZON.

Ms. Gjertsen Malone was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself, her book and her writing life.

DG: The setting of your story - an elite east coast private school - is so unique and interesting. Do you have a connection with private schools? What gave you the idea to write a story with this setting?

LGM: I don’t have any specific connections to private schools – in fact I went to public school for my whole childhood and find private schools fascinating for that reason. But my husband actually went to an all boy’s school that went coed a few years after he graduated.

After reading a fundraising appeal letter that explained all the great things they’d added at his old school – like girls sports teams – and how many more girls were attending each year, I got to thinking. Why would a school decide to go coed? And how could they be sure it would actually work? And then, if it didn’t work, what if the opposite happened.....if there were fewer and fewer kids like you each year.

At the same time I was mulling the idea of writing a story with a very strong boy-girl friendship at the center. My idea of the failed coed school was the perfect setting for that kind of story.

DG: I absolutely adore Jeremy Miner, your main character. He really felt so real and believable. Was it hard for you to get into the head of a seventh grade boy?

LGM: Thank you, because one of my biggest fears in writing this book was that people would not find him believable, largely because I am not a seventh grade boy. (Or actually any sort of boy at all.)

 Still I think that most people, at their core, are very similar in a lot of ways. We all have fears and insecurities and concerns about the shifting relationships in our lives. A seventh grade boy is really not all that different.

I should also add, though, that I did have two men read this book several times, my husband and one of my crit partners, and their feedback on Jeremy was vitally important. (Especially since my crit partner actually grew up in Western Massachusetts, where the book is set)

DG: Like so much great middle grade lit, your story is in many ways about identity - about figuring out who we are and where we belong. Did you have experiences in your own adolescence in which you felt isolated, excluded or like you didn't belong? How much of your own middle school years did you draw on to write this story?

LGM: I’m not one of those writers that tries to write about myself, not at all. But if there’s one aspect of my own middle school years that comes out in this book, it’s the feeling Jeremy has that whatever he does, he’ll always stand out for one thing he has no control over – that he’s a boy. It’s around that age, I think, when kids start to realize that sometimes you can stand out by choice – by your skills and abilities, your actions, your interests. Like Claudia does. But other times you stand out for things that aren’t your choice, and maybe aren’t a reason you want to stand out at all.

For me, it was because I’m an identical twin. And that really started to bug me during those middle school years. Not because I dislike my twin, or even being a twin, but because I felt like that was the only thing that the people around me ever noticed or cared about. I could have set the building on fire and half the kids would be like “Check out that twin girl with the gascan!”

Seriously – I bet there are tons of people I went to school with who, if they encounter this novel in a store, will immediately go “Oh look, one of the Gjertsen twins wrote a book.”

I can laugh about it now, but it grated on me so much at around age twelve. I think a lot of kids feel that way.

I also think that’s one of the reasons why the pranks become so compelling to Jeremy despite some of his early reservations – it’s his chance to stand out by choice.

DG: A lot of the story hinges around Jeremy navigating his changing relationships: with his family, his friends (old and new), and even a potential crush. You really make this a vital and compelling part of the book. Do you have any tips for other middle grade writers on how to make the relationships in their own stories become alive and important on the page?

LGM: One aspect of the story that was important to me from the beginning was the idea that Jeremy has all sorts of different relationships in his life, even though most of them are with women. Each relationship has its own ups and downs, and history, and even private language – the way he talks to Emily is different from the way he talks to Claudia from the way he talks to his sister, or his mom.

And this is true for everyone, in real life, both kids and adults. So I think it’s important to observe those little details in the relationships around you and incorporate them into your writing. One example – in this book, when Jeremy is with Emily, he’s always aware of how they are in space. Where she’s sitting, where he’s sitting, that sort of thing. Because they have this awkwardness in their relationship that he’s aware of but doesn’t fully understand. Meanwhile that never comes up with Claudia – she could sit right next to him and whisper in his ear and he wouldn’t even really notice.  Those kinds of details help show how real relationships can vary so widely in big and small ways.

DG: Can you tell us a little about your path to publication with THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S? Do you have any advice for other aspiring middle grade writers on making that publishing dream come true?

LGM: How much time do you have? The short version is this is not the first manuscript I’ve ever written, it’s also not the first one that went on sub to publishers, and I’m not with my first agent. So I guess the message from that is keep at it? People tend to like overnight success stories, but most of the successful writers I know spent a long time perfecting their work, querying, and facing rejection.

DG: Congratulations on a spectacular debut. While I'm sure (and I hope) that you're focused on enjoying the launch of this book, is there anything else you're currently working on? What's up next for you?

LGM: I have a few projects in the works, but nothing I can really talk about yet. Hopefully I’ll have some news to share at some point!


Bridget Hodder said...

love the interview! Looking forward to the book.

WendyMcLeodMacKnight said...

I am so looking forward to this book! It is such a cool premise!

Greg Pattridge said...

This one is on my top five list to read this year. Can't wait to grab a copy. Thanks for the insightful interview.