Hello, Mixed-Up Filers!
Today, we are thrilled to welcome Pamela Ehrenberg and Tracy Lopez, the authors of the first book from PJ Publishing, Detour Ahead!
Pamela and Tracy, thanks for joining us!
JR: To start with, can you tell us a little bit about Detour Ahead and the impetus behind writing it?
Pamela: Sure! So, the book started, literally, on a bus: my son and I were on an H4 Metrobus one morning in 2015 when our teenage neighbor, who is autistic, shouted from across the aisle that someone had fallen off a bike. Soon it became clear that the reason for the cyclist falling was that our bus had swerved too close—thank goodness our neighbor’s shouting caused the driver to stop and make sure the cyclist was OK. It was kind of amazing to me at the time that no one else on that side of the bus either saw what had happened (it’s true that many commuters are distracted by their phones) or classified it as a potential emergency (as became clear when one passenger was able to describe the color of the cyclist’s jacket but hadn’t yelled to make sure the driver stopped). I was reminded of psychology studies I’d learned about where many people’s brains are wired to look to others to determine whether a situation constitutes an emergency—this event made me appreciate that the safety of all of us, including of our planet itself, relies on having enough individuals willing to identify an emergency even if they are the only one shouting.
The more I reflected on the incident, I came to see it as a seed for a fiction manuscript: in real life, the cyclist was an adult, but re-imagining it with a similar-aged cyclist opened up lots of possibilities for friendship across the various neighborhoods along the H4 bus route. (Fun fact: the original title was “RIDING THE H4”—though I credit PJ Our Way for the better title Detour Ahead!)
JR: That’s incredible about the bus. And by the way, I agree. The new title sounds great! How did the two of you connect to decide to work on a book?
Tracy: I found out through a writers group online that Pamela, who I didn’t know personally, was looking for a co-author to write a Salvadoran character’s POV who was also comfortable writing poetry, middle grade children’s fiction, and who was familiar with the DC area. I reached out through Twitter DM in October 2016 and offered to help her find someone since I married into the Salvadoran culture over 20 years ago, and I knew a few Salvadoran writers I could reach out to to see if the project was a good fit. So I worked my connections and asked them to also check with anyone they knew who might be interested, but nothing was panning out. People were busy with other projects, or didn’t write poetry, or didn’t write for children, or weren’t familiar with DC.
Pamela also followed a couple leads of her own that didn’t work out. During this time Pamela and I emailed back and forth and became friends. She had asked in her very first email if we weren’t able to find anyone would I be interested in giving it a try. At the time I was busy querying agents with another project and we both wanted to make a good faith effort to find a Salvadoran writer, but in January 2017 we ran out of leads to follow and we kept getting little signs from the universe that we should give it a go.
JR: What a great story about meeting! What was your collaboration process like?
Tracy: Pamela had parts of the plot outlined before she even met me, so she showed me that first. She had a lot of her character Gilah figured out, but left plenty of room for me to develop Guillermo’s character arc, and she was also very open to changing things to play off any ideas I had. She’s incredible at finding themes and layers and accentuating them in a really organic way. We started working on all that via email for a few weeks. Emails turned into numbered lists and eventually I had to start moving our collaboration over to Google docs so I could keep everything straight. Pamela always says she’s amazed at my organizational skills, but it’s because I have ADHD that I’m so organized. If I don’t organize things I get completely lost and overwhelmed. Eventually we were able to create a Word doc which we passed back and forth.
JR: Which leads to my next question. Did you both find it difficult to work with another person?
Tracy: Not at all. When I used to freelance I never missed a deadline because I was accountable to an editor. Working on my own projects is a different story. I often give in to distraction, go down research rabbit holes, wait for the muse, or get bored and leave things unfinished when I fall in love with a different idea. Having a co-author kept me on task because I knew she was depending on me. And it was also incredible to just learn from Pamela and be inspired by her. I feel lucky that it was overall a really positive experience. It all felt meant to be, and I got a new friend out of it too.
Pamela: I feel the same way about how positive (in retrospect, maybe to a surprising degree!) this all felt, and how glad I am to have found a new friend through this process of writing a book about friendship! For me the biggest surprise was to have someone else care about this book as much as I did: for my other books, it was only after connecting with an editor that anyone else was rooting as hard as I was for the characters to succeed (not just in their endeavors but in coming to life successfully on the page). My critique groups all cared, of course, even about the projects and characters that haven’t yet found a publishing home—but to have another human care as deeply as I did before even knowing if the book would ever make it out of those Googledocs—I was totally unprepared for how transformative that would feel.
JR: Can both of you tell me a little bit about the main characters in this book, Gilah & Guillermo?
Tracy: Guillermo is a bilingual 13-year-old Salvadoran-American boy whose family has just moved from Langley Park, Maryland to DC, and he’s not too happy about it because he misses his cousins who he used to hang out with. So he’s dealing with that loneliness secretly through poetry and by exploring on his bicycle until he has an incident with a city bus. In fear of losing his independence he must make enough money to fix his bicycle before his parents find out what happened. The character is inspired by my own two sons. There’s a little bit of each of them in Guillermo.
Pamela: Gilah is also 13, navigating the preparations for her bat mitzvah (including the breakdancing parts!) amid family and friend dramas of being a middle-schooler. Gilah has lots of thoughts about terminology like “neurodiverse”/ “neurodivergent” / “neuro-atypical”—she and I are in agreement that what’s most difficult is when any of these terms imply that there’s one right way to be “typical.” Throughout it all, Gilah is Gilah is Gilah.
JR: How much are each of them like you and how are they different?
Tracy: I share a love of poetry and language with Guillermo, and algebra class was also not really my thing. I also really cherished the freedom and independence of riding my bicycle around all day as a kid. (And back then we didn’t have cell phones, so there was no way for my mom to check on me. We just went home when it started getting dark!) … As for differences, Guillermo is the eldest child and has one little sister. I’m the middle child of three girls. Also, I didn’t grow up in a bicultural, bilingual home. I didn’t get to experience that until adulthood when I got married.
Pamela: I think more than any other character I’ve written, the process of getting to know Gilah better was also a process of getting to know myself better. My research for the book made me reflect back on some things from my own childhood and sent me down a path of learning more about my own brain wiring. A psychologist was able to determine that I’m not autistic (it took him a bit more testing than usual to be able to tell for sure) but that I might instead have a condition called Nonverbal Learning Disorder–where visual cues can be tricky unless they are translated into words. That made a lot of sense why I felt so “at home” writing out the social rules Gilah pieced together for different situations.
JR: Why did you choose Washington DC as a setting?
Pamela: It’s where the H4 runs. J I do love that Detour Ahead will be added to the growing body of kidlit set here in this wonderful city—Joy Jones’ Jayla Jumps In—is a recent MG that comes to mind, along with The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel and a number of recent titles from Shout Mouse Press—I think all of these have the potential to help readers understand DC as a home to 700,000 real-life people from all different backgrounds (who, tangentially, would all really like to have voting rights in Congress!). But the decision for the book wasn’t for any of those reasons: it was that the real-life incident plus all the story pieces that Tracy and I went on to imagine, couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
JR: Gilah and Guillermo come from very different backgrounds. What do you hope readers take away from their friendship?
Tracy: When Pamela and I talked about how we wanted to describe this story, (probably during a discussion about writing the backcopy), we agreed we didn’t want to use the word “unlikely” to describe their friendship. You see that a lot when it’s a story about friendship, but it didn’t make sense to use that for Gilah and Guillermo despite their very different backgrounds and the serendipitous way they met, because when I look at all the friends I have in my life, we come from different backgrounds and sometimes we met in unexpected ways too. So one thing I’d like people to take away from the book is that you don’t necessarily need to have a lot in common with friends – you just have to enjoy each other’s company. That’s it.
Pamela: I’ll add that Guillermo and Gilah are also able to recognize the genuineness of other people—for Gilah, as for me, that’s a skill that developed over time and which I can now pride myself on as an adult. When middle-schoolers are choosing friends, there’s a lot of pressure to select people who others think you “should” be friends with—not just the popular kids at school, but also the peers that the adults in your life make sure you’re in regular contact with because they’re determined to be suitable friends. The ability to discern for yourself who’s a friend that’s worth spending time and energy on and whose opinion actually matters—that’s a skill that can really help lead to what my synagogue calls “deep and lasting relationships,” including friendships, as an adult.
JR: Gilah is getting ready for her Bat Mitzvah at the start of the book, a huge moment in a Jewish girl’s life. What do you each remember about that time period in your lives?
Tracy: My father’s side of the family is Jewish, but I wasn’t raised practicing, so I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I also grew up in the same town from first grade to senior graduation, so I didn’t really have the “new kid” experience either. I think what stands out in my mind the most from that age is the feeling of being in limbo. You’re not a little kid anymore, but you’re not an adult. You’re trying out independence in various ways but not always sure of what you’re doing. Then while navigating that, you’ve got really deep existential questions about the world and your place in it. I remember crawling out on my roof a lot at night, because my bedroom window was right above the sunroom. (I wasn’t supposed to of course.) I’d sit out there and look at the stars and cry a lot. There was just so much going on in my mind and my heart. Those years are some of the most difficult ones, I think.
Pamela: In some ways, I started writing MG because I’m very much still the middle-schooler in a crowded cafeteria, wondering where in the world to sit and how to get there without dropping my tray. Thinking like a 12-year-old isn’t so much about remembering as just allowing that part of my brain to roam free on the page. At the same time, I’m one of the only adults I know who actually liked middle school: I had gone to a tiny elementary school, so seventh and eighth grade at Pikesville Middle School was the beginning of a wider world for me. I was the middle-schooler who came in 2nd place in the spelling bee and used my gift-certificate prize for a Swatch-like watch that still managed to be not quite on trend—but that was OK because I spent much of my school day in a “gifted and talented” bubble with other kids who were OK with being themselves and not aspiring to mainstream popularity. I wish for every middle-schooler a space where they can be themselves and be loved for who they are…maybe I’m hopeful that some who haven’t yet found it in real life can enjoy finding themselves in books.
JR: Okay, which one of you is the better breakdancer?
Tracy: That’s still to be determined. We haven’t had a dance battle yet, only because of the pandemic and social distancing… Just kidding. I’m very uncoordinated and that would not go well.
Pamela: I love this question! Tracy is known for being modest in her accomplishments. While true about the lack of chance for a dance battle, I am willing to say sight unseen that Tracy is absolutely the better breakdancer.
JR: How did PJ Library come to the book?
Pamela: We were honored to receive a PJ Our Way Author Incentive award from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in 2018, which was an incredibly validating vote of confidence as we finished the editorial process. My kids (now age 13 and 16) have both grown up with PJ Library and then PJ Our Way, and as a parent and an author I am in awe of their commitment to bringing books into existence that fill a need for readers—without needing to “prove” in advance that books will succeed in the marketplace. I actually think their model–which was inspired by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and added the bringing-new-books-into-component—-could be really helpful to other communities seeking to increase various categories of diverse books. (If any philanthropists are reading this, I’m happy to help make connections with the folks at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation!)
JR: Your reactions when they decided to publish it?
Tracy: Happy of course, but it’s also a surreal sort of happy because the whole process takes so long and you can’t tell people right away. It feels a little more real when you get an editor, and a little more real when you get to see your cover, then you get ARCs in the mail, or do an interview like this – so little by little I’m celebrating, but I think part of me still thinks this might not be real.
Pamela: Detour Ahead is my second book with PJ Publishing; it was exciting to see the ways they have grown and evolved over the past seven years while staying true to their mission and their commitment to creating beautiful books!
JR: Have they been very hands-on during the process?
Pamela: We had a chance to work with a super-kind and dedicated editor, Karen Ang, as well as an art director, Chad Beckerman, who brought their own visions to the process while honoring our roles as creators. And PJ found the fantastic illustrator Laila Ekboir, whose visual interpretation added a whole new dimension to our words.
JR: What are you both working on next?
Tracy: I’m finishing up a contemporary MG novel which I’ve been writing and rewriting since 2015. After that I’m excited to finally be ready to choose a new project to start for the first time in a long time. I’ll probably go through my “scraps” notebooks of ideas, but I’m also going to just let myself daydream for awhile. That’s one of my favorite parts of the process and I don’t want to rush it.
Pamela: I have a few picture-book projects at various stages of development and a couple of other middle-grade works in progress—including one that I started during the pandemic with no idea that the Russian connection would suddenly connect it to current events, and one novel-in-verse that I started even before Detour Ahead but might finally be finished (or re-finished!) this year.
Where can readers find you on social media?
Tracy: I’m @tracydelopez on both Twitter and Instagram.
Pamela: And I’m @PamelaEhrenberg on Twitter and @PamelaEhrenbergAuthor on Facebook.
I ride the H4. too! Can’t wait to read Detour Ahead!