Can you talk about your volunteer work at a soup kitchen? Did your experiences there inspire Also Known as Harper in any way?
My work at the soup kitchen has definitely inspired Also Known as Harper. The issue of homelessness is so real, so current, but I think a lot of people find themselves very removed from it. It’s a difficult issue to think about—people like ourselves without basic comforts that we take for granted. In my story, I tried to bring real faces to the issue of homelessness. Often we think of an old dirty bum in an alley, but with Harper, I tried to show that the homeless can be hardworking people, many with jobs, who were just unable to earn enough to pay their rent. One of the things that continues to be unsettling for me is seeing the children. They have no control over their situation and they tend to be very shy and humble when they come in. As soon as we see kids walk in the door, I set aside the best desserts!
What was the starting point for you when you wrote this novel?
I think the starting point for the novel was when I saw a picture in the newspaper. Local volunteer outreach workers were trying to get an accurate count of the homeless in our community. The man in the picture was living in the woods in an area where quite a few homeless people had campsites. What struck me as so unusual was the chair he was sitting in. It was a striped armchair like someone might have in their living room. He talked about his trailer being towed away, along with his kids’ pictures. The photo of that man, with no place to put his possessions, really hit me hard and lingered in my mind until it turned into Harper’s situation.
Harper Lee Morgan has such a vivid personality. Did you base her, or any of the other characters, on anyone you know?
Harper isn’t based on anyone in real life, but I knew a little bit about her when I started the story. Since she was going to be in a tough situation, I knew she was going to have to be a very strong character. I saw her in my mind, standing on her front porch, tearing off that eviction notice.
This novel has such a memorable setting, especially the run-down motel and the abandoned drive-in movie theater. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I have always been drawn to unique settings and pictures of places. I think a good photographer captures not just the place, but an aspect of a person’s life. I am infatuated with old buildings and anything that is broken-down or overgrown. They have a type of mystery and intrigue about them and I always try to imagine their story. I was out for a jog one day when I passed a vacant lot. The house had been torn down to make way for a new housing development. What fascinated me was what was left: an old swimming pool and the cracked remnants of a patio. That mossy pool, partially filled with rainwater, made its way into my story.
Have you always been a writer?
I have been writing ever since I could pick up a pen. I’m sure my family wished they could have taken away that pen sometimes, because my first stories were about them, and they weren’t always portrayed in the most favorable light! My parents were both teachers, so I always had plenty of book supplies. I put together reams of paper with my little red stapler. I wrote my first novel in the sixth grade. It was handwritten (mostly on colored notebook paper) and was called Mischievous Martha. (I illustrated it, too, complete with captions!) Martha did things that I would have liked to do, but would never have dared.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I read constantly when I was a child Some of my favorite books were: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I was also a big Nancy Drew fan.
You’re a teacher. Does that influence your writing?
Being a teacher has a significant influence on my writing. I get some of my best ideas for dialogue from the kids. Elementary kids are especially fun to listen to. Their ideas and opinions are so innocent and heartfelt.