The Whole Megillah interviews Camp author, Elaine Wolf, and her Sky Pony Press editor, Julie Matysik.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you/are you developing your platform as the anti-bullying novelist?
Elaine Wolf (EW): I didn’t intend to become an anti-bullying crusader; I just wrote what I hoped would be good, compelling novels. But because CAMP is set in a sleep-away camp and DANNY’S MOM (Arcade Publishing, November 2012) is set in a high school, it was impossible not to write about bullying.
Early readers told me that I had created “really believable bullying scenes” and that “the mean girl voices are pitch-perfect.” The more I heard that, the more I realized that my novels could serve as springboards to conversations about bullying — and the more eager I became to use my books to make a difference: To keep the bullying conversation going so that, in concert with professionals in our communities, we’ll make our camps and schools kinder, gentler places for all kids.
Determined to get the word out about my mission to stop the bullying epidemic, I plunged into social media. People started to pay attention to my posts, tweets, emails — and to my novels. The Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County (New York) selected CAMP, which was just published in June, as its July Book of the Month. And radio personalities invited me to discuss my work “on the air,” which was great fun. Strong, positive CAMP reviews hit the internet, and bloggers began to ask for interviews. Those accolades and interviews led to lots of speaking engagements — and to students and teachers finding out about CAMP and chatting about it online. Here’s a recent post from a high school junior in Indiana: “If we had more books like CAMP, I’d read more than 40!” (I haven’t stopped smiling since I saw that!)
Now that bullying is finally part of our national dialogue, I know that — if we all join the conversation — we will make our communities safer for everyone. I am committed to keeping the discussion going. And I’m so grateful that my novels, CAMP and DANNY’S MOM, are giving me a growing platform as “the anti-bullying novelist.”
TWM: Relationships are very important to your novel, particularly the one between Amy and her brother. How did you go about creating that?
EW: For me, writing fiction is an organic process. I start each piece (short stories as well as novels) with a character who has a problem. Although I know where I want the main character to end up (which sometimes changes as I get to know my protagonist and other characters better), I don’t know how she or he will get there. That’s what makes the process of creating stories so exciting for me. Once I get to know a character really well — when I can’t get her voice out of my head and I can’t stop thinking about something she says or does — then the character will lead me on her path rather than the other way around.
Here’s what I knew about Amy before I started writing CAMP: She’s a “big sister” and a “good girl” who desperately wants her mother’s approval and who doesn’t want to go away to summer camp. I don’t know why, but the voices of some of the children with whom I had worked when I was a a special ed teacher started screaming in my mind when I wrote one of the opening CAMP scenes, in which Amy and her family are at the dinner table and her father announces that Amy will be going to sleep-away camp. I pictured a young boy who had been my student in a summer program for children with special needs more than forty years ago. And…you guessed it…his name was Charlie. And he was a beautiful little boy who was prone to tantrums.
Charlie’s first tantrum in CAMP, and the way in which Amy and her parents respond, showed me so much about Charlie, the family relationships, and the very special bond between Amy and Charlie. (If this sounds like magic, you’re right. I suppose that’s what I mean when I say that, for me, writing fiction is an organic process.)
Amy and Charlie’s relationship grew from that early scene, and it became a driving force in CAMP. Charlie is one of my all-time favorite characters. He still haunts me.
TWM: How did you create the character of Rory?
EW: While I was writing the scene about Amy on the bus heading to the fictional Camp Takawanda for Girls, Rory’s voice just barged into my head. It was was so loud in my mind. So, the truth is, I just tried to get out of my own way and let the characters dictate the story. Once I had a timid first-time camper, Amy, and an alpha girl “queen of mean,” Rory, CAMP really took off.
I don’t know why, but I have such fun writing mean girls! Maybe it’s because I was always a “good girl,” and writing “mean” gives me a chance to explode on the page. When you read DANNY’S MOM (Arcade Publishing, November 2012), you’ll see that there’s a quintessential mean girl in that novel, too.
TWM: How did you create the struggle between Amy and her mother?
EW: As I said, Amy’s primary need or want is her mother’s approval. So, creating a struggle between Amy and her mother — a struggle that rings true — was crucial. In creating Sonia, Amy’s mother, I thought a lot about my own mother. Like Sonia, my mother was an immigrant who rarely spoke about her life in Germany. In portraying Sonia, I took my mother’s characteristics — her secrets, her wall of privacy, her courage, her perfectionism, her beauty — and I bumped them up ten-fold to make them sizzle, and to make them the sharp glass edges against which Amy constantly crashes. Given these two characters, the struggle was always present as I wrote CAMP. Creating characters with these needs, wants, and personalities allowed the struggle between Amy and her mother to build on itself.
TWM: What led you to the plot points concerning Amy’s brother?
EW: Hmm…it’s hard to answer this without spoilers — but I’ll do my best.
Although I love dogs (as you’ll see when you read DANNY’S MOM, in which one of the characters is a yellow Lab named Moose), I was terrified of dogs when I was very young. So I gave that fear to Charlie, which led to the scene on visiting day. As I was writing CAMP, I knew that Charlie’s fear of dogs would be important to the story. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have given him that fear.)
I also knew that Amy’s mother would have to pay a price for her privacy, and that Amy would pay a price for invading it. (In fact, the working title of the manuscript that became CAMP was “The Price of Privacy.”) If you’ve already read CAMP, you know where I’m going with this regarding plot points concerning Amy’s brother. If you haven’t yet read CAMP, feel free to email me after you read it, and we’ll talk some more about this question.
TWM: Tell us a bit about your writing process.
EW: When I was writing CAMP, I worked on it six days a week. Five of those days were “writing days.” One day each week was a “thinking day.” On “thinking days,” I let the characters, the story, and my thoughts simply tumble in my mind, and I always had paper and pencil at hand. I took lots of long walks on those days, with a notepad and pencil in my fanny pack. I was blessed with a “writing mentor” who lived in my neighborhood and with whom I often met on “thinking days.” It was like having a private critique group. (I was in a terrific “real” critique group, too. However, I didn’t share CAMP with that group; I shared shorter pieces.) In addition, a writing instructor from the New School in New York City, where I had taken a novel writing course, met with me every few weeks to go over scenes and talk about what was working and what wasn’t.
On each of my “writing days,” I committed myself to creating two keepable pages. That meant that sometimes I wrote five or six pages, over five or six or more hours, to get two “good pages.” On some days, though, the scene and the voices just worked — and I got away from the computer after only a couple of hours. (And then I would go out for ice cream…really!)
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book? Your greatest satisfaction?
EW: My greatest challenge in writing CAMP was keeping the story immediate (and in the voice of a teen) while sharing Amy’s thoughts and the interior voice that keeps playing in her head.
My greatest satisfaction was getting in touch with how it might have felt for my mother (and all the immigrants who come to this country to escape war and terror) to cobble together a new life in a foreign place. Writing CAMP gave me a chance to finally mourn for my mother, who died in 1988. The dedication in CAMP reads: “In loving memory of my mother, whose story I can only imagine.” I hope CAMP would have made her proud.
TWM: How important was the Jewish angle to your novel?
EW: It’s interesting that you ask this because one of the editors to whom my agent submitted CAMP asked if I would change the story to have it take place in modern times, which would change the mother’s history, of course. But that was the one thing about which I was absolutely steadfast: it was really important to me to write CAMP from the point of view of a teen whose mother lost family in the Holocaust. So, in that sense, the Jewish angle to my novel was critically important. The Holocaust is in my blood; it’s in my bones. It shaped my mother’s life — and, as such, it has shaped mine. So “the Jewish angle” in the mother-daughter story that became CAMP was really important to me.
TWM: How did you and your agent find each other?
EW: I found my agent the hard way: through the process of cold queries. I sent a query letter with a short synopsis and the first chapter. A month later I was asked to send the complete manuscript. A month after that, I was notified that my manuscript had “gotten a good first read,” and that it was being evaluated “for possible representation.” And when I finally received the offer of representation and signed with my agent, I opened a bottle of champagne and had a great celebration.
Now that CAMP is on the shelves (and DANNY’S MOM will be there soon), the celebration continues.
TWM: Let’s turn to Julie Matysik, Elaine’s editor at Sky Pony Press. Julie, what attracted you to CAMP?
Julie Matysik (JM): When I received the proposal and manuscript for CAMP, we had just started our Sky Pony Press imprint and were on the hunt for good YA fiction that was more than just another vampire love story. I particularly wanted something that felt “real” and dealt with difficult issues that teens ultimately face in their everyday lives. And after reading CAMP, I knew I had found the perfect book for our list. The character of Amy Becker resonated so strongly with me and even though her experiences did not reflect my own when I was a teenager, I felt that I could instantly relate to her. The important topics (bullying, family secrets, self-doubt, etc.) and valuable lessons (forgiveness, taking on the role of a leader, and the like) that Elaine sprinkles throughout the book do not hit the reader over the head but are subtly powerful and leave their mark after the book is finished. These are just a few things that attracted me to CAMP and I couldn’t be more pleased with the final product.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge with this book?
JM: To be honest, the greatest challenge with this book was simply never having edited a YA novel before. With any novel, it’s important to have the characters maintain consistency, so they are believable throughout. Elaine did a stellar job with this and there were only a few queries and changes that we worked through together to make sure Amy and Rory and the others were true to form throughout.
TWM: Elaine, one last question for you. What did you like to read as a camper? What do you like to read now?
EW: I was always an avid reader, and I still am. At sleep-away camp in the 1950s and early 1960s, I tore through the Nancy Drew series. Then as a high school junior, I discovered TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee, and that started my ongoing love of modern American fiction. Some of my favorite novelists now are Margaret Atwood, Kaye Gibbons, Gail Godwin, Kent Haruf, Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Miller, Anna Quindlen, Anita Shreve, and Anne Tyler. I also read lots of young adult fiction, and some of my favorite YA authors are Laurie Halse Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Robert Cormier, Gayle Forman, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, and Jerry Spinelli.
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Great interview, Barbara. This book is going on my TBR list right now. Thanks for telling me about it.
My pleasure, Rosi. I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s a haunting book in many ways.
I always love reading your interviews, and this book is one I plan on reading. Thanks, Barbara, for always helping out Jewish authors.