Friday, August 8, 2014

Author Interview with Kristin Levine


The DMS was lucky enough to interview Kristin Levine. Lizzy reviewed The Lions of Little Rock, and it was great to share our thoughts about it and hear yours! We're excited to learn a little bit more about her story. So, without further ado... take it away, Kristin!

What inspired you to write The Lions of Little Rock?

When I was in elementary school in the early 1980s, my mainly white neighborhood was paired with a mainly black neighborhood to create two integrated elementary schools, one for grades K-3 and the other for grades 4-6. When I asked my parents why I had to ride the bus to school, instead of just going to the school nearest my house, they told me it was a great opportunity for me to go to school with people who were different from me, by race, social class, religion, etc. They said it was only fair that the busing be shared by both neighborhoods. Their enthusiasm for the pairing of our schools made a huge impression on me. 

In addition, my mother grew up in Little Rock. When I started asking her about her childhood, the very first thing she told me was about listening to the lions roar at night. Something about that detail stuck with me. Because of my personal experience with integration and my mother's family history, 1950s Little Rock seemed like an obvious choice of time and place for my second book.

How long did it take you to write The Lions of Little Rock? What was your research process like?

The Lions of Little Rock took me around three years - a year researching, a year writing, and a year revising with my editor. I was actually planning to write a book set during 1957-58 when the Little Rock Nine were integrating Central High School. But when I went to Little Rock to do some interviews, everyone I talked to had much more to say about 1958-59, the year when the schools were closed. 


I had never heard about schools being closed to prevent integration. It seemed like such a drastic thing to do - cutting off your nose to spite your face. But as I did more research, I realized this had happened in other places as well, including in my home state of Virginia.

And in some ways, more people were affected by the events of 1958-59. Nearly everyone had a sibling, friend or neighbor who was affected by the four public high schools being closed. Also, the events of the Little Rock Nine have already been written about by those who were there. I eventually decided I could add more to the discussion by writing about the "lost year."

What are some of your favorite books from childhood? Were there any specific authors who inspired you?

When I was eleven years old and in fifth grade, I was having a hard year. I'm not sure exactly why - changing friends, puberty, feeling like I didn't fit in, etc. At one point during that year I read Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King) and I loved them so much, I started carrying around all five of them in a bag with me at all times, just in case I wanted to read part of them again.

You would think this unusual behavior would have caused me to become even more isolated, but it actually had the opposite effect. I started loaning out my books, and pretty soon, everyone in the fifth grade was reading them. Eventually, the cutest, most popular boy in school came up to me and asked to borrow the first book in the series! So those books have always maintained a special place in my heart.

More recently, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis was probably the biggest influence on my books. I love Curtis' mix of humor and history, and just adore what a loving family he portrays in that book, despite all the conflict and drama.

Where did you come up with the characters:  Liz and Marlee?

Marlee was kind of based on my mother, Marlene. My mom worked at IBM as a computer programmer in the 1960s, and so I knew I wanted to portray a shy girl who was interested in science and technology. I was also good at math like Marlee, and I think I shared her sense of wanting to do what was right, but otherwise, I don't think I was too much like her as a child. 

The idea of Marlee being so quiet came from my editor telling me I needed to work on Marlee's "voice." I think I took her a little too literally, but I started thinking about a girl I had known when I was in junior high who almost never spoke. Once I tried briefly to be friendly to her, but when she didn't respond right away, I went back to simply ignoring her like everyone else. I've always wondered what would have happened if I'd tried a little harder.

Liz came about as more of a foil to Marlee. If Marlee was so shy, I started thinking about what kind of a person she would need as a friend. I wanted to create someone who could pull her out of her shell, and also someone who could learn something from her as well.

If you could befriend a character from any of your books, who would you befriend? Why?

Probably Dit from my first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. He was so outgoing, and good at being friends with everyone. He was good at sports too, and I never was growing up. I like to think, at least he could have taught me to throw a baseball!

Where do you like to write? Do you listen to music while you are writing?

I do a lot of writing at home at my dining room table, or at the island in my kitchen. Sometimes I write at the library or at a local coffee shop. There really isn't one special spot - I've trained myself to write anywhere. I usually don't listen to music when I write because I find it kind of distracting. The only exception is if I'm typing in a scene I have previously written down by hand. Then I find that sometimes music helps me concentrate.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?

Vienna, Austria. I actually did live there for a year once. Between high school and college I took a year off and lived in Austria, working as an au pair. It was fabulous! I especially loved all the music. When I was there (1992-93) standing room at the opera cost $1.50 and a movie ticket cost $9. I've never since been able to afford so much live music!

Are you currently working on a book? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?

My third book, The Paper Cowboy, is coming out in September. It was (very loosely) based on my dad's life growing up a suburb of Chicago. You can read more about it here

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34 comments:

  1. Closing schools to prevent integration ... such a sad history, but an important one to remember. And I write at my kitchen table :) Best of luck with and wonderful meeting you.

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    1. Thanks! I think kitchen tables are a great place to write too - right in the middle of all the action.

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  2. Hello Kristin, I so enjoyed reading little rock and loved finding out more about you and your writing. I’ve just added the best bad luck I ever had to my must-read list, having enjoyed little rock so much I’m sure I would enjoy that one as well.
    Thanks to all at the DMS for sharing this.

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    1. So glad you liked LIONS, and thanks for checking out BEST BAD LUCK. Hope you enjoy that one too!

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  3. What a great interview. I loved The Lions of Little Rock almost from the very first word. I think it books like this are so wonderful for helping to introduce today's readers to what life was like in a different time period.

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    1. It's funny that you say that about the first sentence. That's always the very last thing I write - and I always seem to change it about a million times. So glad you enjoyed the book!

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  4. Vienna would be amazing to visit. Thanks for the chat ladies. It was very interesting!

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    1. Yes, Vienna is still beautiful. I was last there in 2012 - maybe I'll make it back again soon.

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  5. Lovely interview! I need to add this to my TBR. I think it's very cool that you can borrow from your parents childhoods like that :)

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    1. I think it's cool that they let me!! Thanks for your kind words.

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  6. Now I have three new books for my incredibly long TBR list, but I think Kristin's books will rise to the top. All three sound terrific. I will be checking them all out. The school memory that sticks in my mind most is one I won't talk about. Maybe there is a book in that I need to write. Thanks for this interview.

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    1. Yes, I bet there is a book in that school memory. I'll look forward to reading it one of these days!!

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  7. I can't imagine the courage it must have taken for this brave souls to integrate the schools. Standing room at the opera for a 1.50 yes please. Much much cheaper than a movie :) Very interesting and thought provoking material today, ladies. Happy weekend.

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    1. Alas, opera costs much more in the USA. But I do sometimes enjoy the simulcast opera performances they show in movie theaters nowadays. Thanks for your comments!

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  8. Vienna is an awesome place to visit. I was there for a few months about twenty years ago. How great that you were able to live there for a short while!

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    1. So glad you got to enjoy Vienna too! Thanks for reading the post.

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  9. Sounds like a fascinating topic. I can't believe they closed entire schools to avoid integration. That was a crazy time in American history.

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    1. Isn't it hard to believe? Thanks for reading the post.

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  10. I came across your blog by following Penny Shriver's blog. Following with the theme of integration, I moved to Texas the first year of "bussing". Originally from a small town in Kansas, I had never met nor gone to school with kids of a different race. I experienced culture shock at the 5th grade level. I could not understand how kids did not like me and were mean to me just because of the color of my white skin. I experienced my first school "fight" because of this. A girl who had been bussed from the east side of town had come up behind me and kicked me. I instinctively kicked her back and that was it. I never had any more trouble from her, even through high school, but the look of hate for me never left her eyes.

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    1. Debbie- So glad you found our blog through Penny's blog. :) Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It is so sad when people judge others based on skin color, but it certainly happened a lot throughout history. I am glad that girl didn't give you any more trouble during the rest of your school years- but that must have been scary! ~L

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  11. Quite the book. Let us never forget the turmoil that brought us to today.

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  12. I really enjoyed reading Kristin’s interview. That 50s picture of the black girl being yelled at by the white people is scary. Kristin’s tales of her experiences, where she’s lived, and the books she loved were very thought provoking. Great post!

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    1. Lexa- So glad you enjoyed Kristin's interview. We learned a lot too and it gave us a lot to think about. :) ~L and F

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  13. With all the work the author has put into it, it must be brilliant. Love the idea too.

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    1. Vanessa- Her hard word definitely paid off! :) ~L

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  14. I enjoyed The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Powerful book.

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    1. Kelly- I still need to read that one! :) ~L

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  15. Both segregation and the early days of integration were intense, sad times with the unfairness and harassment people went through.

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    1. Medeia- So true! I am glad we continue to takes steps forward and we get farther away from small minded thinking. :) ~L

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  16. historic fiction has so much to offer, especially to kids in school. i applaud you for bringing that ground breaking time to light. congrats! and the book about your dad's childhood sounds cool too!

    ps - thanks for stopping by my broken branch falls blog tour!

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    1. Tara- HF does have so much to offer. It is wonderful to get to see history through the eyes and hearts of characters while in the safety of our own home (or car, or outside etc...). :) ~L

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  17. What an adventure to write about such an amazing historical moment. Best of luck with the book, Kirstin.

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    1. The Armchair Squid- We totally agree with you! :) ~L and F

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