The Absolute Value of Kathy Erskine

We are delighted to welcome Kathy Erskine, National Book Award-winning author of MOCKINGBIRD, to the Files today. Kathy has a brand-spankin’ new book out called THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE. When math-challenged Mike is sent by his father to live with relatives so he can add an engineering project to his academic resume, Mike discovers his true strengths and abilities in a town just teeming with odd characters.  It’s a funny book with a serious message.  Kathy was kind enough to sit down with us for a few minutes to talk about her award, her new book and the writing life.

What has been the most unexpected experience or moment resulting from the National Book Award?
Wow, there have been many lovely moments — getting to meet the other finalists at the National Book Award events, being invited to Wisconsin where they had a whole school unit and community event around Mockingbird and autism, being asked to judge contests, doing talks and school visits in Guam — it has all been fabulous. I guess I’d have to say the most unexpected delight is being invited to join the faculty this summer at the Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. I attended seven years ago and thought, hoped, dreamed about coming back some day as a published author.

Wow, what a seven years it’s been! What was the inspiration for your new book, THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE?

I’ve seen too many kids down on themselves because they have some kind of learning disability. Often, these kids don’t perform well in school because standard school doesn’t play to their strengths. It may be years before they see how valuable they really are. I wanted to write something for them, to give them hope and encouragement. They will succeed at LIFE which is more important than school.

I love that message! Can you talk about the writing process behind this book? I’ve read that MOCKINGBIRD just poured out of you – was it a similar experience for THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE? Are you a plotter or a plunger?

I’m a plunger. And sometimes I plunge in several times and come out with multiple versions. The Absolute Value of Mike took more time and revisions than Mockingbird. Partly, I think it’s where you are at the time, and what’s happening, that dictates the ease at which a particular book can be written. And, I started it as a very light-hearted book and decided that I really wanted it to have more substance — humor, but still something weighty behind it — so it took a while to get it right.

When I read MOCKINGBIRD, I was really struck by your ability to create humorous moments in the middle of some fairly painful scenes, and in THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE, I thought you created the opposite effect – there are some very difficult moments for the character in a pretty crazy situation. Do you think it is more challenging to “write funny” or “write serious”?

I think it’s harder to “write funny.” One reason is that most of us can agree on what’s sad but we all have a slightly different sense of humor (you don’t hear about different “senses of sadness,” right?). One person will think slapstick or farting is funny but another person won’t. Also, it seems easier to describe something that’s sad than a funny or silly situation — although I try! I love humor and I think it’s almost as important as breathing, so I like to use humor in my books.

What advice do you have for young writers?

You probably get tired of hearing this but . . . read lots, write lots. Also, take a class if you’re interested. Share your stories with friends or even create your own writing group. That’s what Wendy and I do — we share our stories to get feedback from others, and we read theirs and give our comments. Be brave and submit your work to magazines like New Moon, (girls only, I’m afraid) and Stone Soup, (can’t be older than 13), or online writing sites like Figment, to be 13 or older for this one). Above all, keep writing!

And now for a little fun…the Inside the Actor’s Studio Questionnaire (Middle-Grade Style!)

What is your favorite word in a middle grade book? Wool Pooh. (The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963, Christopher Paul Curtis)

What is your least favorite word in a middle grade book? Snot (especially green).

What turns you on in a middle grade book? Humor.

What turns you off in a middle grade book? Kids who are too adult to be believable.

What sound or noise do you love in a middle grade book? Laughter.

What sound or noise do you hate in a middle grade book? Excessive whining.

What is your favorite curse word in a middle grade book? Corpus bones!

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Research scientist.

What profession would you not like to do? Telemarketer.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? We have chocolate!

Oh yes, pass the chocolate, please!  Thank you, Kathy! If you’d like to win an ARC of The Absolute Value of Mike, tell us what you absolutely value in the comments below. You may receive extra drawings for re-posting or Twittering; please note that in separate comments. This contest is open only to mailing addresses in the U.S. or Canada. And don’t forget that this is the last day to enter the Mixed-Up Files anniversary giveaway. Both winners will be announced tomorrow!