Thursday, May 13, 2010

Interview: Julie Halpern! (*involuntary squee*)

Guess what, guys. You remember how I gave away one of my most favorite books? Well, Julie Halpern, the author, contacted me to say thank you and offered to do an interview! I know! I've been bouncing off the walls, and of course I jumped at the chance to get to know her a little better.

She's just as awesome as I imagined.

So today you get to read my first author interview! Thank you so much, Julie, for being willing.

I'm always interested in other writer's "journey to publication" stories. Will you please share a short version of yours as if you were a DM recounting an awesome campaign?
Um, I’m not sure how to make it as exciting as a D&D adventure, unless I include some random traps and a Harpy. Instead, I’ll just give you the facts. My husband, children’s book author and illustrator Matthew Cordell, and I submitted a picture book proposal, written by me and illustrated by him, using contacts listed in the “Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market.”

Out of nineteen submissions, we lucked out that our book was pulled from the slush pile and eventually turned into Toby and the Snowflakes (Now, sadly, out of print from Houghton Mifflin). From that, Matt started getting work as an illustrator. Eventually, I decided to try writing a novel about my experience with depression and hospitalization, and when it came time to submit it, I thought of this one editor that Matt had been working with, Liz Szabla, who always seemed super nice and friendly. She had just moved to a new imprint of Macmillan, Feiwel and Friends, so I sent her an email telling her I was Matt’s wife and I heard she was at a new imprint and here’s what my book was about in case they were looking for any YA fiction.

She wrote me back the next day and said the book sounded right up her alley. A couple of weeks later, she emailed me back that we should talk. I called her while at work, and she told me all of the things she liked about my book and all of the things that needed changing. I totally thought she would tell me that she’d be happy to look at the book again after I made those changes (which is what happened for six months before they finally said yes with Toby), but instead she said they wanted to acquire the book! It was incredibly exciting, and Liz has been the absolute best editor. A perfect match for me.

Like most writers, I'm sure you've had those moments. You know, the ones where it seems like things will never happen. What did you tell yourself to get through it? More importantly, what did you eat?
I didn’t include in my last answer that I had tried to submit GET WELL SOON to one other publisher, before the book had been completed. That publisher wanted me to change the format of the book from letters to a straight novel. I didn’t want to do that, especially because changing it didn’t guarantee having it published.

Instead, I just knew it would be better to move on and finish it the way I wanted to finish it. My brain doesn’t really work in the way that I think things will never happen. I am by no means an overly confident or presumptuous person, but I am very much one who believes that things will happen if you make them happen. I didn’t doubt that my book would get published (with revisions and hard work, of course); I just didn’t know when it would get published.

When I talk to groups of students, I tell them that finding the right editor is like finding a mate—it’s not easy, there is only one of them, and you have to fit together. This is the one person who decides to make or break your book, so if they don’t like the book initially, then you probably wouldn’t like working with them anyway! It’s just a matter of finding the right editor or agent to work with, and that can take time. Don’t give up if you really want it! (I love you for this answer, Julie, just so you know.)

And eating? Probably a lot of Swedish Fish and Peanut M&Ms.

What have been some of the most rewarding moments in your writing career so far?
One of the most rewarding things to happen was having a book published with my husband. I really hope that someday we can have other books together.

Something else that has been rewarding is having a book based on my real life experience with depression because I have had many of my own students (I am a school librarian by day) (Yay, librarians!), as well as people through email and letters, approach me about their depression. I get to tell them, “I know it sucks and it’s so hard, but it’s possible to make it through and become a successful human being.” I am the proof of that, and it seems to comfort or inspire people. With INTO THE WILD NERD YONDER, I just love people talking about gaming and not caring about being “cool.” I hope that resonates with kids, too.

What does your writing process look like? Planner? Fast writer? Or, like me, do you shoot arrows in the dark and hope some hit the bullseye?
I am not much of a planner, although when I get into writing a book, I like to make lists or schedules for the characters. Like, I want to include this, this and this, but this should happen before this. GET WELL SOON took place over a very specific number of days, so I created a sort of day planner for it so I could space out events and know what was coming up. With my third novel, which contains a road trip, I had to map it out as far as time and distance. I also need to keep lists of characters, since I never remember anyone’s names.

I think I write pretty quickly. My first three novels were written by hand. (Hardcore!) I may try writing directly into a computer this summer while I work on the sequel to GET WELL SOON, but I think I am more creative on paper first. I hate the next step, though, which is typing the entire thing. It takes forever and drives me insane. But it’s also another huge editing step, so it’s useful to me. It’s why I can’t have someone else do the typing.

I recently bought a moleskine notebook because I read John Hughes used them. I thought I’d start writing down my ideas. But I haven’t used it yet. I think I don’t like putting my ideas on paper until I’m ready to run with them. If I do write them down, they may start to look lame or boring after sitting there for a while. (Mmm Hmm. Oh, I feel you there.)

In terms of how I write, I think I sort of just become the character in my head and write, in first person, as that character. That in itself has a nice connection to D&D, since I also love to play D&D fully immersed in a character. My D&D characters are usually weird and stupid, so they can get away with making mistakes. My current one, an elf bard named Lulabelle, is always making oven mitts for people and playing recorder music at inappropriate times.

You've probably noticed I have a rather intense love for INTO THE WILD NERD YONDER. I know it's a cliché question, but what inspired the book? Did you have to do research? Or were you already well-versed in D&D, punk, etc?
Thank you so much for loving it as much as you do! I’m really happy to hear that.

The book began with the original first line “Being the sidekick sucks,” which was sort of my situation for a large portion of my teen years. My close friends were the punks and alternative kids, and I always felt like a poseur trying to be like that. But the book changed a lot as I wrote it, and I wanted there to be a reason the main character, Jessie, would want to leave her friends and move toward the D&D crowd, so I changed the “friends” into more of villains. A little too villainous sometimes, I’m afraid, but that was the motivation for the change.

As far as D&D, I played a tiny bit in high school and some more in college and loved it. When I started working in a middle school, I began the Dungeons and Dragons Club. (I can't tell you how truly AWESOME that is!) I see how much it changes these kids’ lives—how they make new and lasting friendships and gain a confidence they didn’t have. It’s wonderful. And my old club members still come back to visit.

And I always have to include some attachment to music in my books, since that played such a huge part in my adolescence.

What is your favorite thing about writing contemporary YA fiction?
I like that the world doesn’t have to be created, like in Science Fiction or Fantasy, but it is so familiar to so many people. Not everyone can relate to what I’m writing, but many people can and do. I learned that when I was publishing a zine called “cul-de-sac.” My friend, Liz, and I wrote stories about growing up in the Chicago suburbs, and it became quite popular. We got lots of mail with people telling us how funny we were and how they related to the pathetic and embarrassing stories. I even met my husband because he read the zine and thought I was funny. From that, I figured out that the same things that seemed mortifying or weird or romantic to me felt the same way to lots of other people. That’s when I knew I was meant to write.

What one piece of writing advice do you most often swear by?
If you like what you write, someone else will like it, too. Is that too basic? (Not too basic at all! In fact, that is exactly what I needed to hear right now.)

Again, thank you so much, Julie, for taking the time to answer my questions! Your answers have encouraged me to keep going, and I'm sure they'll do the same for many others. If you guys want to check out more of Julie's work, here's her fun website and blog.


  1. Veeeery interesting. Particularly because I'm in the middle of turning an episodic novel into a "straight novel" at the request of a publisher... (But in my case, I think it's the right move.)

    Great interview! Thanks to both of you. :)

  2. Fab interview. I have "Into the Wild Nerd Yonder" on my goodreads 'to read' list.
    By the way (That is if Julie Halpern reads this comment) and for you too, Natalie: Have you seen 'Monsters and Mazes'?! Tom Hanks, early 90's. Since you both are into (?) Dungeons and Dragons you MUST see it.
    Okay. well. if you do let me know what you thought.
    BBy the way, Natalie: I think you are fab and aspire to be where you are. Talking to author's, having an agent, probably you write EVERY day, have over 600 followers on your blog...
    amazing! (to quote Monsters vs. Aliens)
    Have a good day!

  3. I needed to read this today. THank you!

  4. That's so awesome that she contacted you. Definitely "squeeeee!!" moment! ;-) Great interview. It's so fun to hear from other authors. Thanks Natalie!

  5. There were so many great things about that interview.

    Two lines I loved:

    if they don’t like the book initially, then you probably wouldn’t like working with them anyway


    If you like what you write, someone else will like it too.

  6. Thanks for this fabulous interview! I'm checking my libraries on-kine catalog right now.

  7. Great interview! I am totally adding her books to my TBR pile!

  8. Julie, awesome answers and very inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Neat interview! Thanks for visiting, Julie! :)

  10. Her last comment about someone else liking what you write if you do really helps right now too. :) And I only recently started playing D&D at age 25 and I'm loving it. I have to read this book and pass it around to some of my fellow D&D gamers :)

  11. I love that last comment- if you write what you like, someone else will like it too. I want to believe that applies to me too, but I'm about to start querying and am a teensy bit nervous;)

  12. Aw, great interview! I LOVE Julie's last answer as well as her answer to finding the right editor.

    Into the Wild Nerd Yonder has been on my to-read pile ever since you first mentioned it! Now I'm dying for the time to pick it up.

  13. i love the last answer - i need that today - thx natalie!

  14. Excellent interview, Natalie! Thanks!

  15. I love that writing advice!

    Thanks for the great interview, Natalie. Now I'm looking forward to the book even more!

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