Thursday, November 1, 2007

Autumn Cornwell--Author to Author Interview

A BIG WELCOME to fellow 2k7er Autumn Cornwell, author of a zany, thought-provoking, and totally fabulous YA novel CARPE DIEM.

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First, I want to say I absolutely loved CARPE DIEM from page one and I don’t often say that about books. Please tell us a bit about the story.

Thanks, Jen! Let’s see, CARPE DIEM explores the struggle between “spending all your time achieving” versus “taking time to enjoy life.” Vassar is determined to succeed in life. And as a sixteen year old, her self-imposed path to success begins and ends with getting into Vassar and an Ivy League college for her PhD. But when she’s forced to backpack through Southeast Asia during the summer with the whacky artistic Grandma Gerd, instead of taking crucial Advanced Placement classes (and Advanced Advanced Placement classes!) she has the choice to either L.I.M. (Live in the Moment) or continue obsessing about her future. Additionally, she’s forced to define “success” for herself – not just copy what her parents, teachers, or friends think.

The struggle between the present and the future can be best summed up in my novel’s epilogue from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées:

“Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never without end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.”

So, if Vassar can learn to L.I.M., she’ll at least have control over the moments. Or will she? Which brings us to another issue in the book: do you actually determine the course of your life or does God? Is there even a God? Dum dum dum DUM! Vassar finds herself in a situation where she has nothing else to do but mull this over. Like many, she refused to ponder the big questions in life until she was forced into it. And boy howdy, is she forced!

As the child of missionaries, you spent a great deal of time in Southeast Asia. Was your life there fairly structured or did you pretty much “run wild”? What was it like?

I lived in New Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) from first to fourth grade. And actually, my sister and I did have ample time to “run wild” when we weren’t in school. And “school” consisted of the bivouac buildings left over from when General MacArthur and the troops were stationed there in World War II during the “New Guinea Campaign.” (Think corrugated tin structures with some 1940s stylistic flavor – set in the jungle.) My childhood routine basically consisted of school, playing in the center of the “compound” where all the missionaries lived, and taking the occasional plane ride into the “interior” to visit the more remote tribes.

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I ate guavas from our own trees, played in waist high mud on river banks, visited tribes of reformed headhunters and cannibals, lived through an 8.0 earthquake, cavorted outside during monsoons, almost drowned three times, watched my sister fall into an open sewer in Jakarta, kept my own pet fruit bat – and loved (almost) every single minute of it.

What was your first impression of Southeast Asia?

I was six years old when I first went to Jakarta, Indonesia and Sentani, Irian Jaya. Some sensory memories: the smell of fried lumpias (eggrolls) from the street venders; the imported Hershey’s bars that turned white because of the heat, wearing saltwater sandals every day; lush green vegetation everywhere; nice locals who always wanted to pinch my cheeks; the guy who climbed the palm tree to bring me coconuts; that smokey smell that seemed to pervade the interior villages; the tribal men wearing nothing but gourds; and watching in fascination as the villagers ate grubs. (I honestly can’t remember if I ever tried one… I like to think I did!)

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Your best impression?

The overall feeling that I lived in a “virtual playground.” A kid’s dream come true.

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Your worst experience?

Almost drowning three times (in a pool, in a swimming hole, and in the ocean). And having nightmares about tidal waves -- which came as a result of the school librarian reading us a picture book about an island that was hit by a tidal wave. It gave me nightmares for YEARS. I mean, what was she thinking, reading such a book to a bunch of kids on an island surrounded by water and who have just experienced an 8.0 earthquake??? Talk about the power of books!

What lasting impression of the countries or cultures did you bring back with you to the U.S.?

I couldn’t wait to go back. It turned me into a lifelong traveler and explorer. And I think, as a result, I always struggled with feeling like a fish out of water in the States. I felt more at home in SEA. (As I grew up, that feeling dissipated a bit, but never fully went away. Once an MK, always an MK!)

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Vassar Spore is a super over-achiever, and... mmm, shall we say, a bit anal-retentive? Do you share any of these obsessive-compulsive tendencies with her? (i.e., do you carry around an inflatable toilet seat ring?)

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the Traveler’s Friend Hygienic Seat – I wish someone would invent it. It really would come in handy.

Although I do share certain qualities with Vassar, I’m not quite so hyper-vigilant about hygiene. But when traveling in Third World countries, you really do have to be careful. Americans aren’t usually exposed to all the strains of germs and bacteria and, hence, are “intestinal wimps.” A friend of mine actually gave us the advice to “eat a Pepto Bismal tablet before every meal and you’ll cut your case of traveler’s tummy in half.” And he was right – it really does work. That and washing your hands constantly with Purell. I learned my lesson when I got sick after eating an unwashed guava and had to literally run for the nearest outhouse three times while touring Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (See the chapter entitled: “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.”)

OK. You are dumped in the middle of a Cambodian jungle. Water and food is available, but all you have with you is your average-sized fanny pack. What’s in it?

Those aforementioned Pepto Bismal tablets, Purell, Kleenex (guess why), Emergen-C packets, earplugs (those SEA roosters are LOUD), a thin folded-up poncho (for all those monsoons), Extra Strength Tylenol, Dr. Scholl’s moleskins for blisters, sunglasses, compact digital camera, my small Moleskine journal, two pens, and traveler’s gold: a bottle of sleeping pills – necessary when trying to get your Zs in the jungle!

Does anti-bacteria spray for food really exist?

Alas, Foreign Food Sanitation Spray is also a figment of my fertile imagination. (But yet another travel item that would really come in handy…)

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You’re a “travel junkie”, I see. Which country haven’t you visited that you’re dying to see? Which country are you dying to revisit?

I haven’t yet explored South America. I’d like to visit Patagonia and Manchu Picchu. And in Asia: Tibet, Nepal, and China.

Oh, I’d revisit ANY Southeast Asian country in a nanosecond! But most especially Laos. And I’d like to travel more in India – maybe pop over to Sri Lanka.

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Your novel ended with the PERFECT setup for a sequel. Are you planning one?

I’ve actually received a number of reader emails asking me that. At this point I’ll say: I’m entertaining the concept of Vassar, Hanks, and Gerd making a second appearance. But if it happens, it won’t be my next book.

People are always interested in other authors’ roads to publication. How long did it take you to write CARPE DIEM? How long to find your agent? How long for your agent to find a publisher? Any major changes during the editing process, i.e. slashed out characters or secondary storylines?

I first got the idea for CARPE DIEM almost ten years ago, when I was traveling in Melaka, Malaysia. I had so many real life quirky adventures there (see the chapter entitled “Nibbling”) that I knew I had to set a novel there. But I was thinking more along the lines of an adult book about an expat couple trying to acclimate to life in Malaysia. A few years later, after working in TV & Film, I decided to try my hand at a novel. I spent a month and a half writing it at a guesthouse in Bangkok – and that’s when I went on my Laos trek/adventure that I write about in the last third of CARPE DIEM. Then I wrote it off and on, in between other projects and travels to Southeast Asia. (Including two outreach trips to help refugees).

After I had almost finished the rough draft, I got really valuable feedback and encouragement at the SCBWI LA Conference – especially from fellow YA writer, April Young Fritz, who became my literary mentor.

After being sidetracked for six months while my husband and I co-founded a church in Hollywood with four other couples (which SO could be a book in itself!), I returned to my novel and went through a number of drafts. (Ahem, like Vassar, I’m a perfectionist.) In 2006, after further feedback and refinements, I finally felt it was ready to send out to agents. I thoroughly researched my “dream agents” – Rosemary Stimola topping the list. After querying, it all happened very quickly – within days, I signed with Rosemary and about a month and a half later, she sold CARPE DIEM to the wonderful Liz Szabla at Feiwel & Friends in a pre-empt. (Then followed sales to three countries as well as audio rights. Let’s just say Rosemary truly is “dream agent” incarnate!)

And Liz is the dream editor. Actually, I’d rewritten this puppy what felt like a thousand times. So by the time Liz read it, it was in good shape. I didn’t have to do any major rewrites. But Liz did have some great suggestions – like working in Vassar’s friends in more (which resulted in “Vassar’s Potential Best Friend Search” and her friends’ emails being woven throughout the entire book – which I think worked very well. Thanks, Liz!)

How long have you been writing? Was there a moment of “epiphany” when you realized that this was exactly what you wanted to do?

Like many writers, I’ve always loved English classes and writing short stories, plays, sketches, etc… And growing up without TV gave me the incentive to read – a lot. The library really was my main hangout for years. And librarians really were my friends! (Oh, except for that one who read about tidal waves…) But I think the writing bug officially hit me in college. I was a TV & Film Communications major and had to write a screenplay for one of my classes. It was entitled (wait for it): Confessions of a Dancing Chip. Anyway, lo and behold, it actually made the top 10% of the Nicholl Fellowships, a script contest run by those Academy Award folks that receives thousands of entries each year. The Program Coordinator wrote me a handwritten, encouraging note at the bottom of the notification letter – which helped confirm to me that I had a knack for storytelling. It’s amazing how little things like that can really keep you going. (And in retrospect, I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt in completing a 110 page script – albeit with a lot of white space.)

Do you also have a “day” job? If so, how do you wrangle your writing time around your work hours? If not, do you keep to a writing schedule or wing it day by day?

I don’t have a day job, I have a Sugar Daddy (aka: husband J.C.). After I worked in the TV & Film industries for a few years, he encouraged me to stay home and write. Since we both believe in “downsized living,” it was possible. And it gave me the chance to travel extensively to Southeast Asia – where I accrued more and more material.

My writing schedule used to be: write all night and sleep in until noon. (I can’t remember a time I wasn’t a night owl. I always outlasted all the other girls at slumber parties.) However, with the advent of Baby Dexter, I’ve had to CHANGE. And it’s been tough trying to acclimate to a new schedule. I’m trying to force myself to go to bed early (11:30PM) and get up early (7:30AM) and try to snatch writing time during Dex’s naps and after his bedtime. For someone who’s used to writing 6-12 hours at stretch and pulling all-nighters, well… let’s just say that my productivity is down and often I substitute “napping” for “writing.” But I’m hoping that will change soon and I’ll get my new writing rhythm!

Your name is no longer Autumn Cornwell. You are ordered by the powers that be to choose a new name for yourself, a name you might find somewhere in Southeast Asia. What is the name, and what does it mean?

My husband will answer: “Ling-Ling. That is, Monkey-Monkey in Thai.” Ah, thank you, J.C. Glad I asked.

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Name one book you wish YOU had written.

Children’s book: THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin. I think it’s probably one of the most perfect middle grade novels ever written. A pristine blend of characterization, plot, mystery, and comedy. Not a wasted word or phrase in the entire book.

Adult book: Yikes! Just one? Sorry, can’t narrow it down. Pretty much all of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. As well as OUR MUTUAL FRIEND or BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens. Oh, and Flannery O’ Connor, Dorothy L. Sayers, Carol Shields – okay, okay, I’ll stop now.

If you could never write again, what other creative venture would you like to explore?

Although I didn’t have much experience, I loved directing film. So I wouldn’t mind trying that again. Also, we have tons of footage from Southeast Asia – especially a lot of great Burma footage – which I’ve wanted to edit into a documentary of some sort. Then there’s “art” – came thisclose to majoring in it in college. (Been keeping journals of my drawings since first grade). Then, of course, there’s the always unpredictable adventure of “creative parenting” which I’m currently exploring…

Lastly, writing-wise, what do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?

Books, books, and MORE books! I’ll continue with my YA novels, and also hope to add a middle grade novel based on my MK experiences. I have an adult book percolating, as well. In fact, I have no shortage of ideas, just a shortage of TIME to do them ALL! (Thanks, Dexter!)

Thanks for an awesome story, Autumn--and for sharing you experiences!

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