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.