Ashley Herring Blake Interview + Giveaway

I’m thrilled to welcome Ashley Herring Blake to the blog today. Ashley’s middle grade novel The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James just released this week, and she stopped by the Mixed-Up Files to tell us about it and to offer an autographed copy. (See details on the giveaway at the end of the interview.)

First, here’s a little bit about Ashley and the novel:

Ashley Herring Blake lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and two sons. She is the author of the middle-grade novel and ALA Stonewall Honor book Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World as well as the young adult novels Suffer Love, How to Make a Wish, and Girl Made of Stars. Her newest middle-grade novel is The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James. You can find more about her on her website and on twitter and instagram.

 

 

Twelve-year-old Sunny St. James navigates heart surgery, reconnecting with her lost mother, first kisses, and emerging feelings for another girl in this stunning, heartfelt novel–perfect for fans of Ali Benjamin and Erin Entrada Kelly. When Sunny St. James receives a new heart, she decides to set off on a “New Life Plan”: 1) do awesome amazing things she could never do before; 2) find a new best friend; and 3) kiss a boy for the first time. Her “New Life Plan” seems to be racing forward, but when she meets her new best friend Quinn, Sunny questions whether she really wants to kiss a boy at all. With the reemergence of her mother, Sunny begins a journey to becoming the new Sunny St. James. This sweet, tender novel dares readers to find the might in their own hearts.

 

 

What was the inspiration behind the story of The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James?

Sunny started out with a few things: A motherless girl, mermaids, and the ocean. I knew I wanted to write about a girl whose mother had left her at a very young age because of alcoholism and I wanted that mother to show up again. I wanted to explore what happens when someone who’s hurt you truly does rehabilitate—what does forgiveness look like, does that relationship have a future. I also wanted to write about a different kind of family, one that is both biological and found. The heart transplant part of the story came a bit later, as I was figuring out exactly what kind of girl Sunny is. The concept, honestly, took me a bit by surprise, but once I started thinking about it, I was intrigued to explore the challenges Sunny would encounter.

 

When the novel opens, Sunny is just about to have a heart transplant. I love the thought she has later about trying to make her new heart fit into her head like it fits into her body. Also, the part about her suddenly liking butterscotch pudding. It made me wonder how much research you had to do to come up with these insights into the mind of a heart transplant recipient.

Most of the research I did about heart transplants was medical. Surgery time, recovery, medication they have to take afterward, what kind of physical activity they can do and how soon after the surgery they can do it. I did pull on some knowledge I had before starting the book, about how amputees feel phantom pain and things like that. I read some blogs by transplantees that gave me some valuable insight into the emotional aspects of having a transplant. I also did a lot of thinking about Sunny, a lot of visualization. I imagined how strange it might feel to have your most important body part taken away and replaced with someone else’s, someone who had to die in order for you to have that body part. Writing, for me, is a careful balance between accurate research and empathy. In order to develop a character the way I want, the kind of character I want to read, I have to put myself in that character’s shoes as much as possible.

 

This novel and your previous middle grade novel, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, both deal with girls who have crushes on other girls. Why do you feel it’s important that there be more books like this for middle grade readers?

Simply put, these books are important because there are kids who need them. Millions of kids are questioning their identity, are already sure of their queer identity, or are just curious about thoughts and feelings they’re having that they’re just not quite sure what to do with. We’ve all heard stories about people who didn’t come out until their twenties, thirties, but who always had these feelings about their sexual identity that they didn’t feel safe divulging, didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, or some combination of the two. Stories like Ivy and Sunny give kids a safe place to wonder. They give them a sense that they are not alone. They help them see they are worthy of time, of attention, of a conversation, of love. We need more books like these because kids need more books like these.

 

Sunny’s mother, an alcoholic who left Sunny with a friend several years before the novel opens, suddenly shows up in her life after the heart transplant. Was it difficult writing a character who abandoned her child?

It was actually. I’m a mother myself and I had to really reach to find reasons why I would ever leave my kids. Lena, Sunny’s mother, truly believed it was the best thing for Sunny and indeed, it might’ve been, but it’s still hard to justify a mother leaving her child and for eight years. Lena was an interesting character to write, which is why I wanted to write about this situation. There’s not an easy solution for Sunny and Lena and I wanted to show that, that life is messy, motherhood and childhood is messy, forgiveness is messy. Kate, Sunny’s guardian, made it a little easier to write. Through writing Lena’s story, I knew all the while that Sunny was deeply loved and cared for, so that was a little bit of comfort. Not every child has that, however, and we can’t forget those kids either.

 

You write both middle grade novels and young adult novels, can you talk a bit about the difference between the two?

It’s been interesting writing both these past couple of years. I don’t shy away from difficult topics in middle grade. In fact, I could easily see the same issue and topics from Ivy and Sunny in a young adult novel. I think the difference is simply the language I use to express these topics and situations and the lens through which I’m viewing them. A twelve year old’s understanding of an alcoholic mother is much different than a seventeen year old’s, which I wrote about in my young adult novel How to Make a Wish. I have to think about things like vocabulary, maturity, and emotional/physical/psychological development. Another difference is how I approach sexuality. In YA, I explored sex a lot more. In MG, it’s more about sexuality as identity rather than the actual act of making out and having sex. In writing YA or MG, it’s all about my target audience and that’s who I have to think about while writing.

 

One of the things I loved about the novel is how well your words get the reader to feel the emotions of the characters. Do you have any tips for writers on how to do this?

That is a great question and I wish I had a quick and easy tip. I have many flaws as a writer, but I do think I do emotions pretty well and the only thing I can think that contributes to that semi-competent execution is really knowing your character. Ruminate on them. Picture yourself in their shoes. Think about how you would feel it that were you. Know their needs, wants, and end goal before you start writing. Those may change, for sure, but one thing that drove Sunny throughout the book was her desire for a best friend, to kiss someone, and to do amazing things she never got to do when she was sick. Knowing she wanted those three simple things helped me understand how she would react in certain situations. I also needed to know her backstory. I like to think about backstory as the ghost. What is haunting that character? What do they carry on their back? So it’s not everything they’ve ever seen and done. It’s what haunts them. And for Sunny that was her mother leaving her when she was four, which as I dug deeper into that, meant she questioned whether or not she was lovable and worth the trouble. This was further developed with her issues with her former best friend. So you can see how knowing, solidly, just a few things about my character opened up a large emotional landscape for the novel.

Thanks so much, Ashley, for these great answers and for taking the time out to visit the blog.

To be the lucky winner of a copy of The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, leave a comment below. I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday at midnight and announce it on Monday. (U.S. only please.)

 

 

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Dorian Cirrone
Dorian Cirrone's most recent middle-grade novel is the award-winning,THE FIRST LAST DAY. She has published several books for children and teens and is the Co-Regional Advisor of SCBWI-Florida. Visit her at www.doriancirrone.com
16 Comments
  1. I know my students would love this! Me, too!

  2. Can’t wait to read this book–it sounds great!

  3. I have been eyeing this one! I have Ivy Aberdeen and would love to add this to my classroom library!

  4. Having lost a dear friend who was waiting for a heart-lung transplant, and then having had a family member receive two kidney transplants, organ donation has been a recurring theme in my life and to say I’ve thought a lot about it would be an understatement. Still, there are as many different ways to look at it as there are people experiencing it, as we discovered each time–different family members would experience the same event or announcement in very different ways. So, I’m very interested in this book and would love to share it with others.

  5. My gosh, there’s a lot to unpack in that story. It’ll be a challenge for young readers for sure but no doubt one that many will be up to. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  6. Really looking forward to reading this and found Ashley’s description of how she gets deeply into her characters very helpful for my own writing!

  7. I kind of feel the same way as when my daughter has a student that needs a lung transplant and hasn’t been able to go to school. They have been on the transplant list for a while and attempted three times to get those lungs. Once the lungs didn’t fit, second time the lungs were full of puss. All times she was taken to the hospital and prepped for surgery, then disappointed. I thought well I will pray for them, then thought, wait does this mean I’m praying for someone else to die. It is a real heart wrenching conundrum. Thanks for writing this important book for kids.

    • Dear Joan, I don’t know if you’ll see this, but I read your comment and wanted to respond. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, both while I waited with a friend for a heart-lung transplant, and then after she died because she did not find a donor in time. While my family wondered briefly whether we were praying that someone who fit the right profile would die and save our friend’s life, we ultimately realized that so many people die every day who haven’t signed donor cards and organs go to waste. We were praying that someone who died would have signed up to be donor and would be matched, that someone’s death would bring a second chance to our friend, that when the medical personnel talk to the family, they would consent to donation (because that can be a factor so everyone should make their organ donation wishes known). We weren’t praying for a death, we were praying for what happens after the death: Since someone is going to die, please help this happen so two people don’t die,” essentially.

  8. I’ve been excited for this book for months! Ivy Aberdeen is one of my very favorite books, and so I have high hopes! The cover is great, too.

  9. Thank you! I love the idea of the character’s backstory being like a ghost and the need for the author to know it thoroughly in order to write a full rounded out character in terms of believable emotions.

  10. This sounds amazing! We love Ivy in our house!

  11. This sounds like an amazing, important book. Middle-graders really need honest books like this. Thanks for telling me about it.

  12. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book for any level where the main character for a transplant. Kudos for an original idea–looks like a great story!

  13. Thanks for the interview. I enjoyed the advice about really f=getting to know your character to make the emotions and interactions authentic. I’ve been waiting for this book since I read and loved Ivy last spring.

  14. I absolutely loved Ivy and can’t wait to meet Sunny. Thank you for writing books that deal with identity without making it the only theme of the story!

  15. I can’t wait to read this book!