Friday, February 28, 2014

Author Tammar Stein Talks to us about Writing Characters, Working with Teens and Winning the Lottery

We are very happy to be able to bring you an interview with Tammar Stein. After she came and spoke to some lucky Arlington teens this fall during our Nanowrimo series, we knew we wanted to know more about what makes her tick as a writer! Thanks to Ms. Stein for letting us pick her brain.

First, would you mind giving our readers a quick synopsis of Spoils?
Spoils is about a family in Florida who wins the lottery, an 80 million dollars jackpot. Seven years later, there’s nothing left. The fancy cars: gone. Friends: gone. The fancy house: about to be foreclosed. They have three kids and when they won they gave each of their kids a million dollars. The oldest two spent theirs. The youngest daughter, Leni, was eleven when they won so they put her million in a trust fund. That fund matures when she turns eighteen which a week away when the book begins. What Leni does with her money turns into an epic struggle between good and evil, because money can work miracles, but only when it’s spent right.

Spoils is a companion to your previous novel, Kindred. When did you know that you wanted to continue with the world you’d created in the first book?
As I wrote Kindred, I knew there was much more left to explore so I outlined the second part of the story. However, when the time came to write it I had moved to Florida and had been struck with the idea of a family who wins the lottery and instead of being a blessing in their lives, it turns into a curse. So with my writer’s prerogative I wrote Spoils. In my mind, I knew how Kindred and Spoils were connected but my readers wouldn’t be able to see it. So right before Spoils was released, I published Debts, an e-novella that completes that missing time period between where Kindred ends and Spoils begins. Debts reveals that hidden connection between the main characters in Kindred to Spoils, that six degrees of separation. Without Debts, the two novels are loosely connected, but as soon as you read Debts it all clicks together and they are suddenly one long narrative arc. I’m pretty proud of that little trick.

When you came and spoke to our teens about writing, you talked to them about creating well rounded characters. What was your process like for creating the really interesting and flawed characters that make up Leni’s family?
 Perfect characters are flat and boring. Think Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. They are so flat their names are adjectives (don’t get me started on “Prince Charming”) It’s why we remember the villains much better than the heroes of so many fairy tales. The villains are interesting because they struggle, because they hate and plot and seethe with envy. Frankly that’s a lot more relatable than meekly accepting abuse while befriending small rodents. People are complicated and families are the most complicated webbings of love and tension of all human interaction. To make someone in the family “good” and someone “evil” is unthinkable to me. It’s not that easy. Even when dealing with actual evil, the devil himself, I still think there’s room for interpretation. People can have good motivation, a well-meaning heart, and cause a lot of damage that they never intended.

One of my favorite aspects of Spoils is the quick glimpses of the people that Leni interacts with and how they see her or her family. What inspired you to add these into the story?
 I’m always intrigued by what’s the story behind people I meet in passing. What’s the story behind the tired but always smiling cashier at the store? What’s the story with the sad looking man at the traffic intersection holding a cardboard sign? What’s going on with driver of that sleek looking car who looks like he hasn’t laughed in a year? In real life I never find out the answers. In Spoils, I loved being able to answer those questions. I wanted to show that people are complicated and interesting and that no matter what our background is, we all have this feeling that lots of money will make our lives better. But of course, you have the Kohn’s who are living proof that it’s not true.

Since the lottery plays such an important role to the plot, we have to ask, what is the first thing you’d do if you won a mega-millions jackpot?
 Good question! Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what people do with copious amounts of money. In the end, I think that after paying off loans and giving all the members of my immediate family a nice check, I would set up a charitable foundation. That’s the best way to stop too much money from ruining my life! (Notice that Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Marcus Zuckerberg have all reached the same conclusion.)

Can we ask if you’re working on something new?
 I’m working on a middle grade novel. I haven’t written for that age group before and I’m finding all sorts of new challenges that are keeping me humble.

You do writing workshops with teens, what’s your favorite part about getting to interact with young writers?
 It’s a cliché to say that I love their energy, but it’s true! The teens who come to my writing workshops are self-selecting. They’re the readers and dreamers that speak to my heart. Their faces light up when they talk about their favorite books, they grow animated and passionate talking about their favorite (or least favorite) characters. Most adults, even passionate readers, are more circumspect. They’ll say “here’s a book you might enjoy” but teens will grab you by the shoulders, give you a little shake and say “oh my god, you have to read this!” As a novelist, it’s wonderful to keep in touch with that, to remember that if you write it right, it’s going to really affect people, that it’s going to make their day.

Do you read YA yourself? Do you have any favorite authors to recommend to our readers?
 I do read YA, it’s a fantastic genre where a lot of very talented writers are writing some very cool novels. Everything from the excellent and very commercially successful Susan Collins, Rainbow Rowell (see our interview) and Maggie Steifvater (see our guest blog) to some amazing local talent like Diana Peterfreund, Jon Skovorn (see our interviews), and Ellen Oh. I also love the classic YA books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Ender’s Game

Do you have any advice for teens who want to pursue writing as a career?
The two biggest traits you have to have to make it as a writer are stubbornness and a thick skin.  Frustration with your own work and rejection by agents/publishers are part of the process. It’s just a fact of life. It smarts and it stings and you have to be able to deal with that and keep writing. Writing is equal parts craft and art. Art is something you may or may not be naturally talented in, but craft is all about hard work. You probably won’t have a brilliant story when you first write it down (no one does) but you will have a story that keeps getting better as you revise it and work on it. You have to be willing to put in the time and the effort with no promise of reward. If you’re willing and able to do that, then I look forward to reading your novel one day!

Thanks again to Tammar Stein! To learn more about the author, check out her website!

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