|How do you incorporate humor into your books that deal with more serious issues?
I think that laughter and sadness are both such important parts of life and literature, so I do my best to write them both well and to try to tie them to one another. It can definitely be a balancing act, though, to figure out what level of humor benefits the serious stuff and vice-versa. I am a writer who writes many, many drafts of a book before it is finished (often scrapping hundreds of pages at a time), so with each draft I come a little bit closer to finding that balance.
Are any of your characters or stories inspired by real people or events?
My novel Umbrella Summer was loosely inspired by a real-life event. When I was nine years old, my older brother became very sick with a kidney disorder, and had to stay in the hospital for about a month. Because of this, I developed a pretty severe case of hypochondria for quite some time, and when I was older and became an author, I decided to use this as a jumping-off point for a novel. Annie Richards, the protagonist of Umbrella Summer, is very worried about getting sick (and pretty much everything else), just like I was at that age. But that’s really where the similarities between Annie and me ended. Among other things, Annie’s brother dies before the book begins, and my brother—thank goodness!—is now completely healthy.
You earned an MFA in Creative Writing for Children. How has it helped you or impacted your work? Would you recommend that route for young writers?
My two years in the MFA program at the New School were incredibly influential to me as a writer. So many things came out of that period, but perhaps the most important one was that I learned to take myself seriously as a writer. When I was originally applying to graduate programs, I remember thinking that if I was accepted, it would mean I was a good writer, and if not . . . well, then I would need to think of an alternate life plan. It makes me a little sad knowing that if I hadn’t been accepted to grad school, I probably wouldn’t have finished a single one of my novels. But for whatever reason, I needed classes and professors and other writers in order to commit to working my hardest at what I love—and I think I’m not alone in that. For those of us who need a bit of validation before we can forge on with our art, graduate school is worth every penny and every sleep-deprived hour.
Can you tell us about your next book?
My next book is a middle-grade novel entitled Double Dog Dare. It comes out in April 2012 from Penguin/Philomel, and it is told from alternate points of view from two fourth graders, Kansas and Francine, who begin a dare war in order to determine who will win the coveted position of news anchor of the school’s media club. It also has a bit of a serious side to it as well, since (although Kansas and Francine don’t know it about the other) both kids are dealing with their parents’ divorces.
What made you want to be a writer?
I’d always liked to write, even as a small child, although I never thought I was particularly good at it. Mostly I wrote stories because my older brother did, and I wanted to be just like him. Then, when I was studying abroad in Italy my senior year of college, my language professor encouraged me to translate a children’s novel I’d written into Italian. That was the thing that really made me realize how much I adored the written word—having to painstakingly analyze each and every word I’d written down, and figure out if it actually meant what I’d thought it did, and if perhaps there was a better, more succinct way to say things. This was probably the first time I realized that writers didn’t just write things down perfectly all at once—that they had to edit and amend and really think about everything over and over again. For some reason, I loved that process—manipulating words and moving them around on the page until they were just exactly the way I meant them to be, watching the minute changes that occurred when I replaced this word or removed that one. Really, I guess I fell more in love with rewriting than with writing. And after that, I was hooked for good.
How do you get your ideas? Do you do research?
I get my ideas from everywhere, really—a conversation I overhear on the subway, or a documentary on TV. When I have on what I like to call my “writing brain,” I’m constantly turning everything I see and hear into a piece of a story. I think being a writer is mostly a matter of looking at something and thinking, what if? What if one of those dogs that man is walking ran away? What if that lady on the subway was standing next to her long-lost brother, and she didn’t even know it? The world can be a very fun place when you have your writing brain on.
And I love to research! One of my favorite parts of being a writer is getting to learn about things I wouldn’t normally know about. Some of my books are more research-heavy than others, but no matter what the premise of the story is, I’m always looking up something. The more I know about a certain subject, the more ideas it sparks in my brain.
Where do you prefer to do your writing? What time of day?
I can write pretty much anywhere, but in my ideal world I do all of my writing in the morning, at the green desk in my home office, in my pajamas with a nice cup of coffee beside me and my cat asleep in the nearby armchair.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
My best advice is to be critical of your own work, but not overly so. Know when what you write is amazing and when it needs work. Most of the time, it will need work (and lots of it). But never throw out anything forever. I am constantly stealing lines and characters and ideas from stories and novels I wrote years and years ago, that would otherwise never see the light of day.
What would you be if you weren't a writer?
I would either be a children’s book editor (which was my second career for several years) or a high school science teacher.
If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would you choose?
I’d have to pick Louis Sachar, because Holes was the book that truly inspired me to take up children’s books as a career. I met him once, when I was an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (where Holes was published), and I was so overwhelmed with excitement I could barely talk. Maybe if we had a whole lunch I’d be able to get out a full sentence.
WOULD YOU RATHER...
Read or write? Write, most days
Call or text? Text
Fly or drive? Drive
Beach or ski? Cross-country ski
Time travel back or time travel forward? Backwards. I’d love to see how events in history actually unfolded.
E-book or traditional book? Traditional. There’s nothing like the smell of a new paperback book.
TELL US YOUR FAVORITE...
Children's book: Holes by Louis Sachar
Song: This is too hard! Although, to be honest I listen to NPR far more than I listen to music (nerd alert!)
Sports Team: My boyfriend is a die-hard Phillies fan, so I will go with them, since this is the only team of any sport whose players I can actually name.
Travel destination: The Galapagos Islands. I’ve been dying to go for ages.
Superhero: Captain Underpants
Magic power: I’d want the power of Never Getting Lost
We are Sweet on Books, so we have to ask – what is your favorite sweet treat?
My grandmother’s lemon bars. I want some right now!
Lisa Graff is the author of several middle-grade and chapter book novels, including The Thing About Georgie, Umbrella Summer, and Sophie Simon Solves Them All, which have been named to a combined nineteen state reading lists. A graduate of the New School's MFA program in Writing for Children and a former children's book editor, Lisa currently works as an adjunct professor at McDaniel College in Maryland. She lives in New York City. You can learn more about Lisa and her books at www.lisagraff.com.