Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pretty Like Us - Carol Lynch Williams

From the very first novel I read by author Carol Lynch Williams, I have been a huge fan of both the author and her works. That’s why I was excited to not only read her latest novel, Pretty Like Us, but also to have the opportunity to interview her.

Pretty Like Us is the story of two girls—Beauty McElwrath and Alane Shriver. Beauty, a painfully shy sixth-grader, lives in a small town in Florida with her mother and grandmother, both strong-minded single women. Beauty wants to come out of her shell and make friends, but her efforts have always resulted in teasing from the other kids at school. The fact that her mother is dating her teacher doesn’t help matters at all, and Beauty is certain she is destined to always be a social outcast.

Then Alane moves into town. Before the girl even arrives in class, Beauty’s teacher has asked the students to be kind to the new girl who suffers from a rare disease known as progreria, an aging disease. When Beauty first sees Alane, she thinks there has been a mistake. Surely this is Alane’s grandmother, not the girl herself. No one in sixth grade could look that old.

But it is Alane, and she sits right next to Beauty. Just what Beauty thinks she doesn’t need to help her get over her shyness and absence of friends, until she starts to discover that beauty of often more than skin deep, and true friendship sometimes comes in odd packages.

This is truly a must read book for girls. Those who are shy will relate to Beauty, just as those who see themselves as different will relate to both girls. All girls have felt concern over being accepted at some time in their life, and Beauty and Alane’s story will not only let them see themselves, but will also give them lots of laughs along the way.

I'm always fascinated by the names Carol Lynch Williams gives her characters because they are truly unique, so I asked her where they come from. “There’s almost always a name in a book that I’ve written that belongs to a person I know,” she says. “For me, it’s a way to say I love that individual. In Pretty Like Us I had decided I would name one of the character’s after my very good friend Alane Ferguson. She’s a fellow writer—a mystery writer—and a terrific person. It turned out that Alane’s name actually means beautiful one—and so it fits right into plot of my novel. And by the way—Beauty’s name started out Grace Beauty. When I sold Pretty Like Us, I also sold a series another writer friend and I wrote with characters named George and Gracie. And you guessed it. I know someone named Grace—that’s my youngest daughter’s middle name!”

I was also interested in Carol’s choice of using Progeria in a middle grade novel. The disease is so rare, I didn’t know how kids would relate to it. “When I was young,” she said, “I met a girl who may have had Progeria. She was nearly blind and looked old—way too old to be ten or eleven. I haven’t forgotten how that little girl pulled out a magnifying glass to read. I was struck right in the heart at that moment. I still remember the incident—everything that was going on at the time. The event remained with me for many years, as well as wondering how this girl existed when children can be so cruel. So I did what writers do, I wrote about her.”

Like all good writers, Carol knew she had to do more than just create a story; she also had an obligation to make the story ring true. “Rather than just seeing the physical differences, I hope people see the similarities they have with these individuals. Like Alane wanting to be a writer, children with Progeria have goals and dreams, too. They are loved and when they die, they are missed.”

I wondered about the prognosis of children who suffer from Progeria, and Carol tells me, “At this point, the disease is always fatal, though children might live longer than twelve or thirteen years old. But there is good news—scientists have found the link between those with Progeria recently. This was hard to do because there are so few cases in the world at the same time. Many times, a child will die very young. You can ‘meet’ some wonderful families with children who have Progeria by researching on the web, like I did.”

Anyone who has ever tried to write a story knows that some parts come easy, and others are really hard. Carol says, “This novel came to me in spurts—based on several true events. There was the young girl I met when I was younger, but this story is also inspired by a woman I met at a local university, who at 45 was a grandmother already—and by a tornado in Texas. The hardest part about writing Pretty Like Us was that when I drafted this book the first time there were actually two stories in one. Once I was able to separate them, and make them both distinct, I was able to sell them both.”

When it comes to writing, Carol is an expert and a great teacher. I was curious about where she starts. “I almost always start stories with a character and an incident,” she explains. “So I kind of have this core knowledge of them as I tell the story. But my characters begin to come to life for me as I write and rewrite, as I discover who they are and what makes them tick. I’m usually exploring main characters even after many rewrites. Rarely does a character spring fully formed from my head—though there is the core of that “person.” And she’s usually interesting enough that I want to follow her for 150 or so pages.”

New writers always want advice about where to start. Carol says, “Write, write, write. And read, read, read. Join a critique group that will help you improve as a writer. Don’t believe what you have written has come from God—and know that your words can be changed if they aren’t working.”

If there were one thing she would advise the newly published, something she wishes she had known with her own first book, it would be, “A good book needs to have some push—or marketing— behind it, and that won’t come from the publisher. There are lots of good books out there that never get the marketing they need. We, as writers, need to help our books along. But, we as writers tend to be quiet and reserved. We don’t all know how to promote ourselves!”

Taking her own advice about reading, Carol is an avid reader. “When I was a kid,” she says, “I was reading adult novels. It wasn’t until I realized I was a mid-grade/young adult author that I started reading books for younger readers. So from 12 on I read the greats—like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Before that I read a lot of poetry (my mother was an English major—and became an English teacher!) and non-fiction. I am still fascinated by bees and the parts of flowers. I do remember being about 10 and being thrilled when I found out that L. Frank Baum had written an entire series based on The Wizard of Oz.”

Carol says she hopes readers find her books fun, and I believe they do. “Many times my books have characters experiencing tough situations—and living though them—mostly,” she says. “Books are a great way for readers to do something they’ve never done before. Another reason to read my novels is because Jim Jacobs—one of the men who’s helped shaped children literature—says I have a true middle grade voice. So there.”

And I’ll add my vote to that comment as well. Carol truly does have a great talent for finding the true voice of middle grade characters and bringing them to life in a funny, interesting, and believable way that will touch reader’s hearts and their funny bones as well.