I’m pleased today to interview one of our very own Mixed-Up Files authors, Michele Weber Hurwitz, whose novel for ages 10-14, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, came out yesterday from Wendy Lamb Books. Welcome, Michele!
A: The summer after she graduates from middle school, Nina Ross is feeling kind of lost. Her beloved grandma died a year ago, her super-lawyer parents are obsessed with the biggest case of their careers, and her brother — about to leave for college — has become distant. Plus, she’s feeling the sting of growing apart from her best friend. Her close-knit cul-de-sac neighborhood has changed, too — no one even comes outside anymore. Partly because of her eighth-grade history teacher’s parting advice, Nina brainstorms a plan to do 65 anonymous good things — one each day of her summer vacation — to find out if her small acts can make a difference. But people react in ways she didn’t imagine, and things get a little chaotic and messed-up.
Q: Wow, so the book is about paying it forward and random acts of kindness? What got you started on this theme? Does it have a resonance in your own life?
A: The story is about random kindness, but more complex. We hear a lot about doing good things these days, but when I started writing, I asked myself a simple question: does doing good really do any good? Sometimes the amount of problems in our world overwhelms me, and I wondered, do acts of kindness make a difference? Are they helping change the world?
I’ve always tried to be a little kinder than necessary, as the saying goes, but after writing this book, I try even more so. It’s remarkable how much a simple kindness resonates with others, then bounces back to yourself. Often, these small gestures are what stick with us at the end of the day. Maybe someone held a door open for you when your arms were full of grocery bags, or shared tomatoes from their garden, or cheered you up when you felt sad.
Q: Was it hard to come up with the 65 things that Nina does for her family and neighbors?
A: I thought it might be, but it wasn’t that hard! There are a lot of characters in the book, and their situations and antics kept providing me with ideas. One mysterious neighbor never comes out of his house, so Nina bakes brownies and leaves them on his doorstep. Another, a widow with grown children, has broken her leg, and Nina thinks of many small ways to help. I had a lot of fun writing about how some of Nina’s anonymous good deeds go awry and a suspicious neighbor (with an overactive imagination) takes them the wrong way. She even calls the police at one point!
Q: I was just talking to some middle school kids this week about how often they are misunderstood in the community, even when they are trying to do the right thing. Sounds like you’ve got a theme that will really resonate with kids. Do you have a favorite quote from the book?
A: There are two that I love. In the first chapter, Nina is thinking about how her family has become detached, and she describes their backyard furniture as a “love seat that needs love.” In a nutshell, that quote portrays so perfectly what’s going on with her family. And in the fourth chapter, a five-year old boy in the neighborhood, Thomas, finds a good luck penny and tells Nina he can now get the “crinimals” because he has a “magic coin.” I love this quote because his little boy enthusiasm and innocence is so strong and believable and carries through much of the story.
Q: Are you at all like Nina?
A: In some ways. Nina is quiet, perceptive, observant; many of the same qualities I possess. I also have a deep sensitivity like she does. However, I can be stubborn sometimes, and assertive. That’s come with age. I wasn’t like that at 13, for sure.
Q: I see that your book is under Wendy Lamb’s imprint. I’m a huge Wendy fan. She’s been at this for such a long time and turns out one amazing book after another. And she does great talks at the SCBWI conferences I’ve been to. Do you work with Wendy herself?
A: Yes, Wendy was the editor for this book, and she was a joy to work with. She’s everything an author would want in an editor. She’s very intuitive; in the early drafts, I think she knew more about the story than I did! She gently encouraged me to go deeper into the story at points where I was skimming the surface. Everyone at Random House has been supportive and enthusiastic.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being an author?
A: I think it’s the variety. Every day is different. One day I could be visiting a school, the next, working on edits, and another day, answering interview questions! And, that I can create something. I’m constantly turning over ideas in my head for potential characters, dialogue, scenes. My family is used to my zoning-out moments at dinner.
Q: I love the variety of writing too! Did you always want to be a writer?
A: Pretty much. As a child, I was more comfortable communicating my thoughts in the written word rather than speaking. When I babysat for my two younger brothers, I used to write my parents long notes describing their bad behavior, and in a sense, I consider these my first stories. In fifth grade, I wrote my first “book.” It won a school contest. The prize was reading it to the kindergarten classes and that was the best reward — seeing their expressions as I read the story. The author in me was born at that moment!
Q: Wow! You are so lucky to have such an affirming experience so young. So many writers go for years and years with nothing but their inner drive to keep them at the page. Do you ever think about that first class of kindergarten kids or imagine writing for them?
A: To this day, I remember that experience so clearly. I was nervous, but as I read, and they listened, the joy of storytelling calmed me. It’s funny, because when I’m writing now and fully immersed in a story, the same feeling of calm washes over me.
Q: My favorite place to write is my tree house. Do you have a special spot for your work? Tell us about your writing routine.
A: Wow! I don’t have a tree house but I write in a first-floor home office that looks out on my tree-filled backyard. I’m most productive in the morning. I’m a big coffee drinker, although my family teases me that I have more flavored creamer in my cup than coffee! One of my faults is that I tend to stress about how much other stuff I need to do — the little tasks of daily life. Not to mention getting swept up in the myriad of social media! I’ve learned that the day gets away from me real fast and I never get to the writing. Some of my author friends have taught me good advice: the other stuff will always get done. So I make a conscious effort to put everything else aside, clear my mind, and write every morning. I love to walk, too, and that time away from the computer — thinking time — really helps me move ahead with a story.
Q: And now the lightning round! Where would we find you on a Sunday afternoon?
A: I’m usually straightening up the house or doing laundry! So boring 🙂 Although, on Sunday, May 4, I’m riding in the 40-mile Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City, so the laundry will have to wait.
Q: What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
A: I love peanut butter and chocolate ice cream and would happily eat it in place of dinner.
Q: Do you have any pets?
A: I don’t have a pet because two of my kids are allergic to dogs and cats, but I did have a very feisty poodle when I was growing up. She had a mean streak and bit everyone but she adored my mom and the piano teacher. Go figure.
Michele is generously giving away one signed copy of TSISTW. Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below!