Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Babe To Teens, Past
A Youth Column
By Jan Fields

An Interview with Novelist Linda Zinnen

     "My favorite qualities in any book are humor and heart. Our interview subject this month puts plenty of both in her works to date." Although I enjoyed both of Linda Zinnen's first books, I really looked forward to reading her third: The Dragons of Spratt, Ohio. It had all the things I like in a book -- dragons, humor, dragons, a family that has both the mom and the dad, dragons, and page turning action. Hey, if she could make books with rats and baseball lively and interesting, I knew I'd love it when she tried some light fantasy. And it sounds like there's more fun books like this coming in the future. Okay, enough gushing -- let's hear from Linda…

Jan: Linda, thank you for doing the interview for BABES TO TEENS. I've been a fan ever since The Truth About Rats, Rules, And Seventh Grade, which I found both funny and moving. I appreciate you taking the time to answer questions.

Linda: It's my pleasure.


Jan: The whole rat scene in The Truth was very real for me -- almost too real. I recently talked with another YA author who said she actually walks through action scenes to make sure she gets the details right. Did you have to do anything special to create such a realistically funny/frantic and slightly creepsome scene?

Linda: Hee! Now that is one of the very few instances where I lifted something nearly straight from real life—my husband and I were knocked out of a dead sleep one rainy November night by an uproarious hullabaloo coming from our kitchen. Seems a rat had made its way into our basement apartment through a window we had left open, and our cats had chased it into our stove. It was quite a night, and with every bit of the screeching and broom-bashing Larch and her poor mom suffered through.

Most of the time, though, I tend to stay away from using true-to-life experiences in my fiction. I much prefer to give my characters a life and outlook completely different from my own. Why? Because I already know what I've done, what I've thought, how I've lived. Frankly I'd be a wee bit bored to write from what I already know so intimately and so thoroughly. But trying to see life through different eyes, to feel it through different experiences -- whoa. It's definitely the best part of writing—living a wild and crazy and brand-new life...and still getting to bed by ten pm.


Jan: Do you do anything specific to keep a feel for realistic teen voices? I know The Truth was written in first person and Larch seemed very real. Matt from Holding At Third has a totally different voice but still seems like a real kid. How do you ensure your characters stay real?

Linda: I have no idea. I do know that I consciously try to stay out of it: after all a kind, earnest, middle-aged white lady like me has no business sticking her nose into the point-of- view of a kid's book, yes? So I am absolutely ruthless with myself---I write the story for the characters and the characters for the story. (And save all that kind earnestness for my own real-time children!)


Jan: Although all three of your books deal with serious stuff, I know The Truth has some very funny moments and even Holding At Third made me smile a time or two. And the whole idea of dragons in Ohio is very funny and the book took me on a hilarious ride. How large a part do you feel humor plays in your writing?

Linda: Oh, everything, everything. Life is suffering, life is absurd, life is sad. Life will break your heart, guaranteed. On the other hand, life is the most funnest, breath-taking, exciting adventure ever, and if I can't or won't take advantage of that whilst writing then I am doing a terrible disservice to the readers who have to mope their way through my books.


Jan: The Dragons Of Spratt, Ohio was really my favorite of your books because I'm a fantasy groupie and because it made me laugh the most. Was Dragons fun to write?

Linda: I really enjoy writing in general, but I truly had tons o' fun with Dragons. Dragons is a light, frothy, fun novel. There's not a serious bone in its wee body. I think my next one will be more in the Dragons vein, only with more rain.…


Jan: Do you finish a book with the next book already brewing in your head or do you need some down time to come up with the next novel? Each book is so different that I would love to know if there's any idea overlap as you move from writing one to the next. I know for me, a new story is sometimes trying to usurp the one I'm working on -- so how separate is each book for you?

Linda: I work on one book at a time, because it's hard enough to wrestle with one story and its several characters without getting confused (and I can get very confused).

It takes me anywhere from one to three years to write a book. I pretty much stay with daydreaming on that story and theme the whole time. That's a long time to focus on a story, and because I have a medically certifiable lunatic imagination to begin with, I often end up having to do an idea-ectomy at the end of the second draft—you know, excising all the accumulated bright notions, twists of fate, flights of fancy, and those couple of useless kitchen-sink sub-plots in Chapter Ten—everything that doesn't tell the story for the characters or reveal the characters via the story. Linear, linear, I tell myself. Keep it linear. This ain't the Odyssey and you sure ain't Homer.


Jan: How big of a part does reading play in writing for you? I know different writers can be almost superstitious about reading while they are in the middle of a novel. How's your reading life?

Linda: I read a ton and a half of stuff, even while writing. I am very drawn to non-fiction, and I just love biographies, because I am always fascinated to hear about people and their problems. And everybody's got something— sometimes a lot of something! Right now I'm reading a collection of science essays, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, and an autobiography of Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's is an astrophysicist, and the exact same age I am. In June of 1973, when he was fifteen years old, Tyson was invited to join the prestigious New York Explorer's Club and sail down to the tip of Africa to observe a full solar eclipse in the company of scientists and educators from all over the country. I, on the other hand, spent that selfsame June lollygagging my way around the beaches of Lake Michigan getting really tan.

Same sun, different adventure!


Jan: Although things got a little fantastic in The Truth once or twice, it still seems The Dragons Of Spratt, Ohio is a pretty big change from your very real novels. What made dragons enter your writing life?

Linda: There's a place called the Wilds ( about thirty miles away from my long-time home of Zanesville, Ohio. The Wilds is fourteen square miles of reclaimed coal mines, and supports a wonderful exotic wild-life refuge—think San Diego Zoo, only in the Midwest.

The first time I visited there, the Big Muskie,( ) the world's largest dragline, had been recently decommissioned and was parked about three miles away. From the Wilds' Visitor Center, the Big Muskie, with its huge boom and bucket, looked very mysterious and yet very much at home, sunning itself on the horizon like a bird on a wire.
The rest, as they say, was several years of rewrites.


Jan: Quite a few of our readers have future writing hopes. What advice would you give them?

Linda: Oh dear. Put down that pencil, turn off the computer, go outside, and live your life. Take an art class—no no, take two! Sing, dance, fall desperately in love. Learn how to read a map. Scrub behind a few toilets.

Look for God. Maintain your sense of humor, cultivate a healthy skepticism, and never buy anything on the so-called easy-installment plan, because it never is. Above all, become a generous soul. And if, along the way you find you still like to write—why, then write! Let nothing stand in your way.


Jan: What are you working on now? Any clues for what we might see from your pen next?

Linda: I'm working on this absolutely fabulous time-slip thingamabob. I've sent a brother and sister from the far future into the relatively near future, and so far, they're fighting like cats in a bag. It's raining every day, they haven't had a shower in weeks, they're eating nothing but beanie weenies morning noon and night and frankly I couldn't be happier!

The Dragons of Spratt, Ohio
By Linda Zinnen
HarperCollins -- November 2004
Ages: 9 - 12

Buy a Copy
Read an Excerpt

Review by Jan Fields,

   Like a lot of kids, John Salt loves dragons, but unlike you or me, John actually has some. A nest of young Chinese dragons fall under John's responsibility and he's determined to protect them -- even from the suspicious interest of his Aunt Mary Athena, cosmetics guru. John is a great character -- warm and a bit befuddled -- but the highlight of the book for me was John's classmate Candi Clark. She's the shallow, popular twin sister of John's best friend, but Candi's experiencing a crisis of faith. She's discovered she's smart -- and she likes it! Will her popularity survive her brains? And will her brains help John save the dragons, whether he likes it or not? Or will Candi be seduced by the dark side of free cosmetics? The answers to these burning questions are well worth reading for in this lively, fast-paced fantasy. I enjoyed it from start to finish.

Holding at Third
By Linda Zinnen
Dutton Children's Books -- Feb. 2004
Ages 8 - 14

Buy a Copy
Read an Excerpt

Review by Jan Fields,

      Given that I hate sports and books with sick kids, I was supposed to hate this book. Honestly, I sort of planned on it. But I couldn't. Zinnen creates such a totally believable character in young Matt Bainter, that I simply couldn't put the book down. I cared about his pain over the way cancer was ravaging his big brother, his idol. I cared about what Matt's personal pain did to his baseball playing, which was the other great love of his life. And I cared deeply about how he handled these things. I also appreciated the way Zinnen's prose didn't leave a sports illiterate like me behind -- I never wondered what was going on. I never felt the need to rush through the baseball scenes to get to the real story. It all worked together to bring in incredibly powerful story into reality. This book made me cry but it also made me smile. And ultimately, it showed me again the power of hope, love and sheer determination. I found it exceptional.

The Truth aobut Rats, Rules, and the Seventh Grade
By Linda Zinnen
HarperCollins -- Feb. 2001
ISBN: 0060287993
Ages 9 - 12

Buy a Copy

Review by Jan Fields,

    A life lived by strict adherence to "the rules" makes Larch Wysorta successful in the classroom but doesn't help much in dealing with the messy details of life. And her life is very messy. The rules won't help her do the right thing about a stray rat-catching dog. The rules won't help her learn about her dad. And the rules won't help her connect with her mother. Although Larch deals with some serious family problems, she does so with such a great quirky voice that this book bursts with humor and warmth. It's a far cry from your traditional "problem" novel, and an enjoyable read from start to finish. And if the rat in the stove scene doesn't creep you out, you're made of sterner stuff than I am!

© MyShelf.Com. All Rights Reserved.