I’m so thrilled to interview MUF contributor Michele Weber Hurwitz about her newest middle grade book, Hello from Renn Lake (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s, May 26 2020). The book centers on 12-year old Annalise Oliver whose family owns and runs a lakeside cabins in Renn Lake, Wisconsin. As a young child Annalise discovered she could communicate with the lake. However, when an algal bloom threatens the lake, she can no longer hear Renn. Annalise and her friends desperately search for a way to save their beloved lake and their community.
Michele, I just love how you alternate between 12-year-old Annalise Oliver, and centuries old Renn, the lake. And then Renn’s cousin, Tru, the river, also has a voice. How did you come up with making the lake and river actual characters in the book? (Also, I was so happy you included Violet, a small quiet lake.)
In my first draft, I didn’t have the lake and river narrating. In fact, it was a quite different story early on, but there still was a main character who had been abandoned as an infant. I had such a strong visual scene in my mind. One moonless night, a baby girl was left near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of the unique and mystical bond that develops between the girl and the lake, I realized at some point the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective. I loved that Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, but I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, so I took a leap of faith. Once I gave Renn a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. Tru’s point of view and Violet’s experience are vital pieces of the narrative as well. Also, I decided that all of the nature elements would not have a gender.
When did you discover that Annalise can communicate with the lake?
I always knew there would be a magical realism aspect where Annalise is able to sense what Renn is thinking and feeling, partially due to events that occurred the night she was abandoned. There’s a poignant backstory scene when she’s three years old and first discovers her connection with the lake. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to later learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. When I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Throughout history, people have lived near water – it’s an essential ingredient of life. Even our bodies are made up of mostly water – more than sixty percent.
I wasn’t that familiar with the potential toxicity of algal blooms in lakes. How did you first get interested in them? What sort of research did you do?
A crisis with the lake was going to be a cornerstone of the plot, I just wasn’t sure what the problem would be. But around the same time I was drafting, I read about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and how they’ve been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. It’s another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal precious oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom. This unsettled me so much that I knew I had to write about this issue. I did a ton of research online and also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate, even though this is fiction.
In your book, you have a Thought Wall, where anyone can write anything with sharpies. I truly appreciate the idea of encouraging free expression. Is something you have done yourself?
One of my favorite pizza places growing up allowed and encouraged patrons to scribble on the wood tables. I also heard about a coffee shop where people could put Post-it notes on a bulletin board. I think that’s such a fun idea. Of course, because I love words, but also that it’s so random – you can read someone’s silly, humorous, or thought-provoking message, and they can read yours. I also love that it’s not online but something more tangible and present. That the office for the cabins along Renn Lake would have a Thought Wall for guests just delighted me, and this goes along with the plot because the messages change when the lake is in trouble.
I love that Annalise’s friend Maya is trying to bring back Yiddish. Is Yiddish a language that you know?
My grandparents, two of whom were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, spoke Yiddish. It’s interesting to me that the language was spoken by Jews in many linked geographical areas, unlike a language that’s a country’s official dialect. I fondly remember my grandparents uttering words like “chutzpah” and “mishegas” that didn’t have an exact English translation. As I’m getting older, I find myself using several Yiddish words, and now my kids are too! Maya starts saying some Yiddish words because her aunt is trying to bring back the language. The phrases aptly describe several situations in the story and might encourage readers to look up their meanings!
There are several mysteries going on this book. Annalise is a foundling and we also don’t know exactly how the bloom got started and what will happen. How did you come up with this idea of Annalise’s abandonment and tying that into the themes of the novel?
In my initial draft, Annalise focused on searching for her origins, but that direction didn’t feel fresh or original. That story had been told before. But I started thinking, what if you choose not to or can’t find the answer to your most troubling question? How do you come to terms with that and move forward? That shift led to a much stronger theme of roots. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise decides to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also tie into the theme as Annalise and her friend Zach discover a possible way to help Renn. So Annalise’s abandonment and the crisis with the lake are woven together, and the river, Tru, plays an essential role in orchestrating this.
I really enjoyed Zach’s science knowledge (his magnifying glass) and the fact that his father is a novelist who isn’t always getting to his work. I have to ask you—who did you base that dad on?
Ha! The frustrated writer part is absolutely based on me! I’ve never sequestered myself in a lakeside cabin in order to write like Zach’s dad does, but I’ve definitely experienced many a time when I couldn’t concentrate and displayed hermit-like behavior – staying in pajamas all day, forgetting to brush my teeth, not leaving the house, talking to the walls. 😊
This novel does end up supplying reasons for the bloom—how it all starts on land—fertilizers, detergent, cleaning products, and pesticides that all end up in our waterways. In addition to the environmental devastation, you don’t shrink from the economic consequences of the toxicity. Is this something you have first-hand knowledge of?
While this is fiction, I referred to my research constantly during the writing process. My editor also asked me numerous questions, as we both wanted to be as factual as possible and offer accurate details that helped shape the narrative. I met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes and when he said the problem starts on land, not the water, it really struck me how everything we do – pouring something down the sink or washing our car in the driveway – can negatively affect a nearby body of water.
In this text, you play with who has a voice and who is voiceless. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It makes me incredibly sad to see the harm people have done and are doing to nature. Our actions are tipping everything on this planet out of balance. I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with the climate disruptions we’re seeing – fires and floods and hurricanes. But water, trees, land – they’re silent. I think it really deepened this story to know how a lake would feel if it was covered with a toxic algal bloom and couldn’t breathe. There are a few chilling last sentences from Zach that make me tear up every time I read them.
Annalise’s younger sister JessiKa (her creative spelling) is such an intriguing character. At times, she’s pretty annoying to her older sister, yet you can’t help but admire her determination to become an actress. At times, she reminded me of Amy in Little Women. I’d love to know a little bit about your process for creating her?
My younger daughter inspired Jess’s character. As a kid, my daughter always had something on her agenda and pursued it doggedly, like ten-year old Jess does with her desire to become an actress. At one point my daughter wanted our family to move to L.A. (we live in Chicago) so she could get on a TV show. 😊 While Jess’s relentless nagging tries her parents’ patience and certainly annoys Annalise, her tenacity proves to be worthwhile in the end, of course!
I love Jess’ line— “Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t do big things.”
Definitely! Jess is small but tough as nails. I was the shortest kid in my kindergarten class. When we were doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, I was cast as the giant! I learned to speak up when I needed to, and so does spunky Jess.
Without giving anything away, did you know that it would be kids and specifically Annalise and her friends who would try to save the lake?
Absolutely. I knew the kids wouldn’t be satisfied when the town authorities take a “wait and see” approach with the algal bloom issue. Kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack. I am in awe of the kids who have been marching, protesting, and speaking out on the climate crisis. There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination.
In a post script to the novel, I truly loved how the information about lakes, rivers and algal blooms was from Zach’s point of view!
I find that sometimes the informational back matter of a book can be dull and boring, and I didn’t want it to be! Zach, adorable science nerd that he is, was the perfect character to share info for readers who are interested in learning more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms. All the links are also on my website.
Did you learn something from this novel that was new in terms of writing?
I learned to trust my instincts more. Deep down, I knew Renn was an essential narrator but I was hesitant to try writing in the voice of a lake. I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t work or readers might not get it. Finally, I just tuned out those negative thoughts and dove in.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the book?
I hope readers will feel inspired to do something in their community – no matter how big or small. The climate crisis is such an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable issue. If we stop using plastic water bottles or recycle every scrap of paper, will these actions really make a difference? And I just want to answer, yes! All of my books end on a hopeful note. I believe in humanity and our inventiveness and adaptability to solve crises. We will find a way forward, and nature can help us come up with solutions.
Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the forthcoming Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.