Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Courtney Sheinmel Interview

In honor of World AIDS Day, here's my interview with the lovely Courtney Sheinmel, talking about her writing and her newest book Positively.

Tell us a little about Positively

Positively is about a thirteen-year-old girl named Emerson who was born with HIV. When her mother dies of AIDS, she has to move in with her dad and stepmother. Even though everyone around her has always accepted her, Emmy feels isolated and filled with grief. Her dad ends up sending her to a camp for girls with HIV, where she finds hope and the will to live, even in a world without her mother.

What was your inspiration to write Positively?

In February of 1991, when I was in eighth grade, I read an article about a woman named Elizabeth Glaser. She was infected with HIV and had unknowingly passed the virus onto her two children. After her daughter’s death in 1988, Elizabeth founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, in hopes of saving her son. It was one of the most remarkable stories I had ever heard, and I decided I wanted to get involved. Since then, I’ve met a lot of men, women, and children who are HIV-positive – regular people who never imagined how their lives would be changed by illness. Over the years I wondered how I would handle being thrust into that situation – particularly as a young kid. That was the impetus for Positively. In the book, Emerson has a personality that is markedly similar to my own; but unlike me, Emerson is living with HIV.

You tackle such a difficult subject like growing up HIV positive in a very sensitive manner. How many people did you interview for this? How much did you agonize over getting it “just right”?

I was very nervous about doing right by this story. I spoke to a number of teenagers with HIV, some of whom had lost parents. I had dozens of conversations with my friend Carol, who started a camp for kids who are HIV-positive, and I got in touch with an HIV nurse practitioner, to make sure I was accurate when it came to medical details. Still, sometimes I felt like I didn’t have a right to tell the story. The issues Emerson faces – life as an HIV-positive teen and as a motherless daughter – seemed almost sacred. One night I had dinner with Elizabeth Glaser’s son, Jake – the boy she started the Foundation to save. He’s all grown up now, and a close friend. I told him I felt like a fraud. He assured me I wasn’t and encouraged me to keep going. He said he believed in me, and believed I could tell the right story. I will always be grateful to him for that.

Because you tackle subjects like what families mean to us, no matter who or what they are, or about growing up HIV positive, are your books seen as controversial?

I don’t see them as controversial. I try to write honest and realistic stories, and my hope is that when readers finish them, they will feel the time they spent reading was worthwhile.

Is there one of your characters you identify most with? And are any of them based on people you know?

As I mentioned, Emerson is a lot like me – she’s sentimental about books and photographs, she’s loyal, and she’s stubborn. Sometimes she throws things when she doesn’t know what else to do (not my best characteristic). I identify with her a lot, even when she does things that may make her life more difficult. In terms of basing characters on people that I know, there are definitely similarities between my friends and the characters in my books. For example, Avery in My So-Called Family is a lot like my friend Arielle – they both have personalities that make people want to be around them. I gave Avery a heartthrob older brother because when I was in middle school, one of my friends had an older brother we were all in love with. And Leah’s younger brother Charlie has a few great one liners that came directly out of my nephews’ mouths.

How does it feel to know your book has inspired a song?

Oh, you mean “Without You (It’ll Be All Right)” by Jessarae? It feels great! The song is about going on after the death of a parent. I think it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard and I was blown away when I found out that Positively was the inspiration.

(I'll post video of this song here tomorrow!)

Do you hear from readers (or parents of readers) who either empathized with characters or had found themselves in the same situation?

I do, and it’s amazing. When I write, it’s just me alone in a room, and I have no idea who will end up reading my books. I would keep writing even if I knew no one would ever see the final product, but getting letters from readers is an incredible bonus. Recently I got an email from the mother of a boy who died of AIDS, and she said she really saw her son in Positively. I will save that e-mail for the rest of my life.

Did you always want to be a writer? (And do you still secretly want to be a singer?)

I always wrote – when I was really little, I would staple pages together to make “books.” But I did really want to be a singer. I was particularly encouraged by my father’s insistence that my sister and I harmonized together really well. (Apparently, in my family, love is deaf.) I still want to be a singer, but I have accepted that it’s just not in the cards.

Do you write full time?

Yes, writing is my main job. I also teach in an afterschool writing workshop and occasionally write book reviews.

Are you part of a writing group?

I’m not in an official writing group, but I sometimes send early chapters to friends for feedback.

Which writers do you admire most and did they influence your own writing?

I cannot possibly name all the writers I admire, but there are three who were particularly influential: First, and of course, there’s Judy Blume, the author of the first chapter books I read on my own, and the person who made me fall in love with reading. When my parents divorced, I carted around It’s Not the End of the World for months. I must have read it a hundred times. Then there was Anna Quindlen, the acclaimed novelist and columnist, who is probably one of the nicest people you could ever meet. She spoke at my high school when I was a freshman, and it was during her speech that I decided, officially, that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. And finally, Mary Gordon. Nothing I can say about her will ever do her justice. She’s an English professor at my alma mater, Barnard College, she’s one of my favorite writers, and she was, hands down, the best teacher I’ve ever had. She made me feel like a real writer, because she took my writing seriously.

What was your favorite book growing up?

There’s a picture book that I read until it was literarily shredded, called The Littlest Rabbit, about a rabbit who dreams of being taller.

What are you currently reading?

How to Say Goodbye in Robot, by Natalie Standiford.

What book would you like to read again for the first time?

A few months ago I read an incredibly moving, lyrical book for adults called The Cure for Grief. When I finished it, I was overwhelmed with sadness that it was over. Also I wish I could read my own books for the first time, as if they were written by someone else. I wonder what I would think of them if I were looking at them from a more objective standpoint.

What next?

My next book, Sincerely, Sophie/Sincerely, Katie, will be published by Simon & Schuster on June 8, 2010 -- I think it’s fitting that the book is a Gemini, because there are two protagonists. Sophie Turner and Katie Franklin are cross-country pen pals who confide in each other when their home lives seem overwhelming.

And I’m in the middle of editing my 2011 book, You Can’t Even Measure It, which follows seventh grader Carly Wheeler, whose life is turned upside-down the day FBI agents come to her house to arrest her mother for a white-collar crime. I went to law school and practiced law for several years before becoming a full-time writer, and this book marks the first time I’ve worked any of my legal knowledge a piece of fiction!

Is there something about you that would surprise people who don’t know you?

I am not really five feet tall (I’m about an eighth of an inch shy).

Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?

Read a lot. Write a lot – write what you know, write things that interest YOU, and not what other people are telling you to write. And be persevering.

Thank you so much, Courtney, for taking the time to answer all my questions. Your event at Kepler's was fantastic and it's always a pleasure to see you - and to read one of your books. I'll post video of Jessarae singing tomorrow so watch out for it. And below are a few photos from the event: Courtney, Jessarae, and a fan (left) and Courtney and the wonderful Heidi Kling (right)


Heidi R. Kling said...

Aww! Thanks for including the picture of us!
Great interview. :)

Bookgeek said...

Thanks (blush) :)