Earlier in 2014, Random House/Wendy Lamb Books published a debut novel by Esther Ehrlich. The Whole Megillah posed some key questions to Esther, her agent Susan Golomb, publisher/editor Wendy Lamb, and Random House Children’s Books senior publicist Aisha Cloud. Nest is aimed at readers 10 and up.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write this book? Why place it in the 1970s?
Esther Ehrlich (EE): Nest began with an image that I couldn’t shake, that grabbed hold of me. I imagined two sisters dancing in the road in a summer rainstorm while their mother, a dancer who wasn’t feeling well, watched them from the porch. I felt pulled in by the characters, wanted to understand them better. Very quickly, I’d written what was originally the opening scene of Nest. (It became the second scene during the editing process.) Fortunately, after this initial scene I was still hooked, still eager to discover whatever the characters had to show me. And so I kept writing!
Why the 1970s? Well, the most obvious answer is that I was a kid then, so it was very familiar to me! But also, I wanted to write about a time when kids had a certain kind of freedom that most kids don’t have today, a time when they weren’t tethered to their parents by cell phones. It used to be that kids ranged around, exploring and playing and creating a whole world for themselves that was separate from the adult world. I wanted my characters to experience that, with all of its joys and occasional perils. And it pleases me to think that young readers today might be able to have a taste of that freedom, might live it vicariously through the book.
TWM: What led you to give Chirp an interest in birding?
EE: That’s a great question. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but I made very few conscious choices about who my characters are, what they’re like, including their interests. I don’t remember when I first “discovered” that Chirp liked birds. It just evolved, along with everything else about her. What I can say is that Chirp made a little chirpy sound as an infant that her parents adored and they occasionally called her “Chirp.” Then, when she was a toddler, she started noticing birds and pointing to them with excitement and so the nickname stuck!
TWM: Did you conduct research for this book? If so, please describe your process.
EE: Yes, I did research for Nest and I really enjoyed it. People often ask if I’m a birder and, though I like birds, I’m definitely not a “real” birder. I used resources that I got from Audubon on Cape Cod to make sure that this bird would be doing that thing at this time of year there. And I listened to birdsongs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. I wanted to do the birds’ justice—choose the right bird for the right mood/situation.
Since I grew up in the ’70s, a bunch of my research was just about double-checking the accuracy of my memories. What did it say on the box of Ring Dings? What Stevie Wonder song would Chirp and Sally most likely be dancing to in the basement? When did that commercial with the owl saying Give a hoot! Don’t pollute! run? I also dug up an old menu from Howard Johnson’s so Dad could order a “grilled-in-butter frankfort,” instead of just a plain old hotdog!
TWM: Was there anything in the writing process that challenged or surprised you?
EE: Yes, I was surprised that though I was writing about some heavy subjects, the experience of writing Nest was mostly a joy. I found the process of getting to know my characters—of discovering who they were, what moved them, what they wanted to do and say—a real pleasure.
TWM: Is there anything you would have done differently?
EE: Hmmm… I don’t think so. There was enough time and space in the shaping of Nest to make any changes that occurred to me. And I was in terrific hands throughout the process, first with my agent, Susan Golomb, and then with my editor, Wendy Lamb. The changes we made throughout the process only made Nest a stronger book.
TWM: Susan and Wendy, what attracted you to this manuscript?
Susan Golomb (SG): What attracted me to Nest were the terrific characters—their authenticity, their joy, their dignity, and the incredible love they have for one another, Everything is brought out without any sentimentality. As a mother, I particularly related to Chirp’s mother and the excruciating difficulty of parenting through depression.
Wendy Lamb (WL): When I read Nest I was struck by the effortless and natural voice, and how this talented new writer immediately made me and other readers at my imprint care about Chirp, her family, and Joey. I loved the use of birds—all the way to the final beats of the ending—and the surprises, the shifts from humor and warmth to the darkest moments a child can face. I knew I had to be the one to publish it. When I add a title to my small list, I ask: Will children like this, will they connect so deeply with the characters and story that they will reread it? Will they find something that echoes their private questions and feelings? Will it make them look at their world differently? Does it have something fresh to say? With Nest, each answer was Yes.
TWM: Chirp, like Harper Lee’s Scout, is a memorable character. What advice would you give for creating memorable characters?
EE: Listen. I think listening carefully to your characters is the key. What do they want? What are they really saying? What hints are they dropping that you shouldn’t miss? I think it’s important not to let your brain get in the way of the subtle art of hearing your characters. For me, the only times I lost my way writing Nest was when I’d get come up with what seemed like a smart idea, a deep, meaningful metaphor, or lofty point. If I forced that on the story, I’d get out of touch with my characters. I needed to keep my head, my heart, focused on all that the characters were revealing to me in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
TWM: School Library Journal called your prose lyrical. Do you have a background in poetry?
EE: My mom was a poet. She used to share her poems with me, beginning when I was a young teen. I learned a lot from her love of words. She used to always tell my siblings and me when we were struggling with school papers, “If you know what you want to say, you should be able to say it in one sentence.” That focus on clarity and “spareness” influenced my writing, I think. I also had a wonderful English professor at Vassar, Eamon Grennan, who is a tremendous poet. I loved working with him. He was really interested in my writing and gave me a lot of encouragement.
TWM: When did you know you were a writer?
EE: Wow, tough question. Part of me has always known it and part of me still doesn’t know it!
TWM: What were your favorite books growing up? What authors inspire you?
EE: As a girl, I loved to read books in which tough things happened to kids but they took matters into their own hands and turned life around. The Secret Garden is a perfect example of that. And books with strong, smart, imaginative kids like Harriet in Harriet the Spy and Claudia in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I also loved the All-of-a-Kind-Family books, for a lot of reasons, including that I liked reading about a large Jewish family since I was part of one!
As an adult, I’ve read and absolutely loved Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio, all of which really brought me into the experience and heart of the young narrator. I recently had the pleasure of reading an Advanced Reader’s Copy of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and thought it was a lovely, tender book. Other favorites? The Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, My Antonia by Willa Cather, everything I’ve read by Alice Hoffman, Working by Studs Terkel, Bruiser by Ian Chorao…
TWM: Susan, Wendy, and Aisha, the book’s been getting lots of positive attention. To what do you attribute this?
SG: I think the book attracted so much press attention for the same reasons I was attracted to it. The writing is so honest, fresh, and profound.
WL: One of the great things about children’s books is that young readers and the adults who choose books for them respond to quality, and honest writing. I’m so glad that reviewers appreciated Esther’s beautiful writing, her sensitive handling of complex, sometimes challenging topics, and her wonderful characters. The story has sad moments, but it’s suffused with love, humor, and hope. The Random House Children’s Book Group did a big marketing campaign to make sure people knew about it, including choosing it as our independent store “rep pick,’’ and introducing Esther to readers at pre-pub dinners on both coasts and at ALA. Esther of course, is the best advocate for Nest—when she hears you speak, she makes you fall in love with Chirp and Joey all over again. The great thing is that the buzz about the book has been heartfelt. Readers, including acclaimed writers such as the very supportive and generous Karen Cushman, are sharing and talking about Nest.
Aisha Cloud (AC): I agree with Wendy’s answer wholeheartedly.
TWM: Aisha, what is the promotional plan like for Nest?
AC: Please know that there are a lot of factors and people in different departments that worked on the plan for Nest. There is educator outreach, advertising, social media, online promotions and publicity that are planned months before the book is on sale and when the book is in stores. For publicity, which is my department, galleys with galley letters are sent six months in advance to Top Trade Review Publications and long lead magazines. In addition, for pre-publication we featured Nest at BEA (Book Expo of America), that’s in May, and we set up a pre-publication Author Buzz Tour dinners in San Francisco (6/11), CA and Seattle, WA (6/12). For the dinners, we invited sales accounts, media, and educators. For the Finished Book Mailing to Top Trade Review Publications and children’s online and print media outlets. We focused outreach to family outlets and also pitched as a mother-daughter book club / discussion book. In addition, we set up author appearances in Chicago and Boston in late September and set up school visits, in-store events, a library visit and a chat with students at Simmons college before their creative writing class.
And with every great review, I repitch to media outlets to see if they will consider reviewing Nest or interviewing the author.
TWM: Esther, what’s next for you?
EE: I’ve begun a new book about a brother and sister living in Boston in the early ‘70s. It’s still a bit soon to know if it’s going to really turn into something, but I hope so!