Monday, March 8, 2010

Contest and interview with Gayle Brandeis

Imagine your dad is Abraham Lincoln. Well, not the President and not the 1800s but in the 1960s and he owns a furniture store.

Author Gayle Brandeis has woven a funny, endearing but realistic story of a girl, Mina, who is convinced her family is the reincarnation of Lincoln's, and she must protect her father from assassination, her mother from insanity and herself from dying of fever at age twelve.

Albert Baruch Edelman (ABE) might not seem a likely target for assassination, but when he starts taking Mina to Civil Rights marches in Chicago and to fair housing protests, he increases her anxiety and forever changes their lives.

I loved Mina's voice, and the way Gayle doesn't flinch from painting Albert as well-intentioned but, at times, misguided. This story delivers three-dimensional characters, as well as easily- digested morsels about social justice and our history. This is Gayle's first book for a middle grade/teen audience. She is the winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for THE BOOK OF DEAD BIRDS. Disclosure: I have known Gayle for years, and we are friends.
Without further ado, here is an interview about writing MY LIFE WITH THE LINCOLNS. Gayle will check the comments section and answer questions when she can. Contest rules are at the bottom of this post.

Talespinning: How did this story come to you? Was it a place, a character, a concept?

Gayle: I actually wanted to write a memoir about my family called My Life With the Lincolns. Like my character Mina, I thought my dad was Lincoln reincarnated when I was young, and a few years ago, I learned that, like my mom, Mary Todd Lincoln had a lot of grandiose delusions around money. My mom had asked me not to write about her during her lifetime, though, so I decided to put this idea on hold. At some point, my editor and agent at the time asked if I could fictionalize my family's story; I didn't want to do that--I wanted to write a real memoir at some point--but then Mina started talking to me and I decided to listen. The novel ended up not being autobiographical at all aside from the Lincoln connection (and my own tendencies toward hypochondria as a girl, plus I wrote a neighborhood newspaper similar to Mina's Lincoln Log). My mom took her own life a few months ago, and I'm working on a non-Lincoln-related memoir about her now.
(Talespinning: I've condensed the interview here and am paraphrasing Gayle that the book initially was aimed at adults and Gayle attempted to write it in both Mina and her father's points of view.)
Gayle: The story was meant to be Mina's alone.
Talespinning: Did you do a lot of research, and where, on the culture of the Sixties? Any surprises or discoveries?
Gayle: I did a bunch of research online (especially at the website dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement) as well as at the Chicago Historical Society, plus talked to people who had been there. I have to say that my biggest surprise was learning about the Chicago Freedom Movement to begin with! I have been an activist since I was pretty young, but even though I grew up in Chicago, I had never known about the Chicago Freedom Movement before I started working on this book. I only found it because I decided to do a Google search on "Chicago" and "civil rights." I knew I wanted to set the story in my home town and I wanted it to deal with issues of civil rights so it would have some resonance with Lincoln's time, but I had never known that Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Chicago to spearhead marches for fair and open housing. That little Google search spawned the whole setting of the novel.
Talespinning: Lincoln has always been my favorite president for the strength of his convictions and compassion for others. Did you have a special place for him in your heart? And what of Dr. King?
Gayle: Lincoln has always been my favorite president, too! I grew up in the Land of Lincoln and went to Lincoln Elementary School, where I touched a life-sized bronze statue of Lincoln every day as I went up the stairs. Also, my birthday is on the anniversary of Lincoln's shooting (I never liked this fact), plus as I mentioned I thought my dad had been him! Lincoln was a wonderfully idealistic, poetic, committed man. As was Dr. King (who was killed ten days before I was born, and who I've always also felt a connection with.)
Talespinning: What does it say about Mina--her choice of Lincoln as a reincarnated father?
Gayle: I'm not sure! What does it say about me? I supposed both Mina and I are dreamers and optimists, girls who adore our fathers and believe that, like Lincoln, they can make the world a better place.
Talespinning: I was impressed with the way your characters had layers. Mina's father is an idealist who rushes in and risks too much at times. Mina's mother is materialistic, but cares for her family. Mina observes and muses but doesn't have the life experience to always understand. How do you balance their strengths, weaknesses and growth?
Gayle: That is a hard question to answer. So much of the writing process for me is intuitive and organic. I really didn't think about any of those things; I just let the characters unfold on the page. I do know that I had to tone the mother down a bit. In the earlier drafts she was almost primarily materialistic, and I realized that I needed to give her more of a heart--she was a bit of a cartoon at first and I definitely don't want any of my characters to be cartoons (but I find that they often are in my early drafts. It's through revision that they find all their dimensions).
Talespinning: How did you discover Mina's voice, and was writing through her eyes any different for you than adult characters?
Gayle: Mina's voice was pretty much there from the start. I think it came so naturally because I still feel like a kid inside. I often say that the inner me is around ten years old, even younger than Mina. It was a treat to tap into that young voice and let it flow.

Thank you so much, Gayle! One of you lucky readers can win a personalized signed hardcover copy of MY LIFE WITH THE LINCOLNS. I will leave the contest open until Wednesday 6 p.m. Pacific time. The winner will be announced Thursday. You get one entry for a comment, another for posting the link to this interview on your blog and a third if you Tweet it. Total up your entries and leave an email addy. And, don't forget that Gayle has kindly offered to answer questions in the comment section.


Abby Annis said...

Great interview! And thanks for the book recommendation. It's sounds like a really fun book--one my daughter might even like. :)

Yat-Yee said...

It's really interesting to get a glimpse of how the autobiographical and the fictionalized come to fit in a book.

For me, everything I write is slightly autobiographical simply because the things that I feel strongly about are experiences and impressions I have. But unless I am writing an actual autobiography *breaks out in laughter: who'd want to read about my life!* I need to use the autobiographical seeds to sprout their own stories.

Thanks for sharing.

Jackee said...

What an interesting book! I love the historical yet personal connection in the story.

Thanks for the interview, ladies!

Donna said...

I wondered why Gayle wrote a YA and why the Lincolns. Thanks for the insights, both of you. I'm anxious to give copies to the kids on my b-day and Xmas lists. I even have Chicagoans on that list.

Donna said...

On behalf of those of us who merely follow, what is an email addy?

Julie Dao said...

Sounds fascinating! I love hearing how the story came together. Thanks for sharing this!

Liza said...

Thank you for a great interview. Gayle, please accept my condolences on the loss of your mom. I'm guessing that weaving small truths from your own life into a work of fiction makes it all that much more real to your readers.

Tamika: said...

Excellent interview ladies! I'm intrigued!

What a powerful plot. This sounds like a mixture of poignant prose and meaningful characters.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi to everyone stopping by. I'm going to my crit group this afternoon but will be back later. Please remember that Gayle will answer questions if you ask!

Abby: It's a wonderful story, and hopefully will get into the hands of lots of children. Glad you liked the interview.

Yat-Yee: Seed is a great way to describe the process, and I enjoyed how Gayle explained the way it happened.

Jackee: So happy you liked it, and, yes, this novel weaves history and personal story seamlessly.

Donna: Yay, for those gift lists! I'm glad the interview answered questions for you.
Addy is short for address, which I need in order to mail a book to the winner.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Julie: I'm so happy you stopped by and enjoyed it.

Liza: Gayle is a very honest writer. You might find her book, FRUITFLESH: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, intriguing.

Tamika: It is indeed powerful. And meaningful. Thanks for commenting.

Bish Denham said...

Nost excellent interview. This is a book I definitely want to read. Thanks for sharing Gayle. My condolences at the loss of your mother.

gayle said...

Thank you, everyone, for all of your interest and kind words (and thank you, Tricia, for all of your wonderful questions! I'm so happy to appear on your blog.) I am definitely happy to ask any questions you have about the book or writing/publishing/life in general, so please ask away!


Sherrie Petersen said...

What an interesting story idea. I love that the setting came from a google search that introduced her to some history of her own town. How cool is that? Sounds like a fun book!

sarahjayne smythe said...

Great interview. And it's fascinating to see how history and story come together.

Asata said...

I'm excited about your Young Adult novel. It's a terrific and unique story, very different from all of the "teen chick lit" my daughter loves to read!! Bravo!

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like a really interesting book! Great interview :)

Suzanne Casamento said...

Great interview! I love how Gayle wrote about just letting her characters unfold.

Also, so interesting about writing the mother and seeing her as sort of cartoonish in earlier versions. (I had a familiar problem myself!) Gayle's right about revising. That's where characters find their dimensions. ; )

Yvonne Osborne said...

Lincoln is one of our most admired presidents and the sixties one of our nation's most tumultuous times. What an intersting juxtaposition. The Chicago Freedom Movement and the Civil Rights Movement both provide a wonderful backdrop for what seems to me a very interesting story and a great one for teens but I wonder, Gayle, about the expected audience, especially as you initially aimed for an adult audience. How do you feel about that? Did your publisher consider offering it as YA with crossover potential? Thanks to both of you for exposing me to this new title.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a fascinating book! Very complimentary to Han Nolan's A summer of Kings.

Tricia, thanks for putting together this interview. My question for Gayle: Are you working on any other YA or MG projects? And, did you write this book w/out a contract and then sell or did you sell it first? I'm curious b/c it seems so specialized.
Thanks both of you for an awesome interview!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Bish: I have no doubt you'd enjoy this one!

Sherrie: Isn't that so fun--to have the story expand with the search?

Sarah: I love the weaving together of the two.

Hi and welcome, Asata: It is indeed a terrific story.

Thanks, Jemi. I think you'd really like it.

Suzanne: Me, too. I think those first drafts tend to be superficial. It's through the revising we reach depth.

Yvonne: It's a fantastic juxtaposition.

Thank you, Paul!
Gayle will get back to you and Yvonne as soon as she can. Thanks for the questions!

Kryn said...

My 9-year-old daughter and I are listening to the book in the car. Love it! Sophia is studying the Civil War and knows all about Tad Lincoln from her lit reading at school. She feels very in-the-know! Thanks for the interview!

gayle said...

Hi everyone! It is such fun to see what a lively conversation has evolved here. :)

Yvonne, I would love for this book to cross over. My publisher is touting it as book for ages "10 and up" (although for some reason Amazon touts it as being for readers from 9-12); hopefully adults will feel included in the "up" part. :) It's hard for me to know whether young people will be interested in the subject matter--I have a feeling that this is a book that parents and teachers will hand to kids rather than kids scrambling to get it, themselves, but you never know. I'm very curious to see how it will be received by a young audience!

Paul, I had a two book deal with Ballantine, and thought the My Life with the Lincolns would fulfill my contract there (the first book at Ballantine was my novel, Self Storage.) My editor loved the novel, but rejected it because she said it wasn't right for her list; she saw it as a YA novel and she only did adult fiction. This was tough to hear (especially since it meant I wouldn't get the next portion of my advance, which I had been counting on), but soon I started to get excited about reaching a new audience. My agent eventually sold it to Henry Holt, which is the perfect home for the book. So yes, I wrote it under contract, but it didn't end up getting published there! The novel that I wrote to fulfill that contract, Delta Girls, will be published in June. Rejection can be a good thing--I doubt I would have written that book if Ballantine had accepted MLWTL! :)

Please keep the questions coming...

storyqueen said...

The story behind the book is soooo interesting. And I love how you infuse bits of yourself in Mina, but still keep her distinct from yourself.


cleemckenzie said...

I enjoyed your interview so much. Thanks for the peek inside of the story.

MG Higgins said...

Interesting, informative interview. Thanks to both of you! Gayle, I appreciate your efforts to make your characters three-dimensional. This is something I need to pay attention to, especially in early drafts.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi and welcome, Kryn. I'm excited to hear that you're listening to the audiobook! I should go listen to a sample. I love audiobooks.

Shelley, Lee and Mel: Thanks for stopping in!

Mary E Campbell said...

sounds like an interesting book and Gayle's life is intriguing - great interview.

* said...

This book sounds wonderful. And the interview was fascinating as well. There's a magical, connection there with Lincoln, how Gayle "touched a life-sized bronze statue of Lincoln every day" as she went into school.

I'm telling my YA librarian & English teacher friends about this one!

Elana Johnson said...

Wow, what a very cool book! Can't wait to read this one. Consider it on my TBR pile. :)

VR Barkowski said...

Outstanding interview! I absolutely love the premise of this book. Even without the personal connection it would make a fascinating story, but I loved hearing about the parallels in Gayle's life. Thank you Gayle and Tricia!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks, Mary!

Woo-hoo, Terresa. I love that you are going to spread the news.

Elana: That's super!

VR: Oh, thank you. I'm thrilled you liked it so much!

Paul Greci said...

Thanks for the detailed answer Gayle. That's the best rejection story I've heard in a while:-)

Donna said...

I agree with Paul. It's encouraging to hear a rejection story with a double happy ending.

Abby Annis said...

I tweeted about the contest here:

My blog post will be up in the next 30 minutes or so:


Sarah Ahiers said...

This book souds wonderful!

1 entry for me!

Robyn Campbell said...

OH MAN! I had gotten so busy with checkin' agent blogs, farming, polishing the MOST AWESOME NEW MG STORY (little bragging never hurts) EVAH!!, that I forgot about this most awesome, wicked, interview, done by my most wonderful friend. =) Uh no, no, not trying to bribe you or anything. *grin* I mean it.

Super fantastic job, you've done here lady! Gayle sounds awesome. And her book does too. I shall add it to my TBR pile. =)

I guess it is too late for me to enter and tweet and all that. Dang, what a terrible memory I have.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks so much, Abby! And Falen!

Robyn: It's not too late. Doesn't end until 6 p.m. Pacific. So you have an entry as of this moment. :) And thank you for the enthusiasm!

Slamdunk said...

Creative writing idea and nice work with the interview.

gayle said...

Thanks again, everyone, for your interest and enthusiasm (and for getting the book as gifts and spreading the word--wow! I'm so incredibly grateful.) Thanks again, too, to Tricia for having me on your wonderful blog. If anyone has additional questions, you can always contact me directly at gaylebrandeis (at) I'm also happy to speak to book groups, libraries, schools, bookstores, etc., either in person or by phone/skype--just let me know. :)

Happy reading!


Sarah Laurence said...

Lincoln is busy after his death: chasing vampires and now reincarnated. Who ever thought there was so much comic material in the wise president? Thanks for the introduction to your author friend. Great interview!

It’s interesting that Amazon is calling it MG and her ex-editor called it YA, since from the description it sounded more like an adult book to me. It’s good that her publishing story had a double happy ending despite the rejection.

PJ Hoover said...

I've been seeing this book everywhere! I'd love to win!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi and welcome to you, Slamdunk!

Sarah: I saw that Lincoln/vampire thing and couldn't quite wrap my mind around it. ;) But I think Lincoln is pretty much here to stay in any way people devise.
Thanks for coming by!

Hi PJ! You are entered!

sanjeet said...

It's really interesting to get a glimpse of how the autobiographical and the fictionalized come to fit in a book.
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