Monday, August 9, 2010

Interview with Kirby Larson, author of Dear America: The Fences Between Us

I am very excited to post this interview with Kirby Larson, the author of The Fences Between Us, which is the first new Dear America book in several years. The Dear America series was my favorite series when I was younger and the main reason I love historical fiction so much, so I was so excited to have the opportunity to interview the author of the newest book in the series. The Fences Between Us will be published by Scholastic on September 1.

About The Fences Between Us: Thirteen-year-old Piper Davis records in her diary her experiences beginning in December 1941 when her brother joins the Navy, the United States goes to war, she attempts to document her life through photography, and her father--the pastor for a Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle--follows his congregants to an Idaho internment camp, taking her along with him.

The Fences Between Us is the first new Dear America book in years. How did you become involved in writing for the series?

The editor, Lisa Sandell, approached my agent wondering if I'd be interested. One of the topics she was looking for was a World War II story and coincidentally, I felt I had a story that would be a good match for the series. In addition, I felt completely honored to be asked!

Piper's story is based on the life of a real minister and his family who followed his congregration to the Minidoka incarceration camp. How did you learn about this story, and what inspired you to turn it into a novel for young readers?

After thinking I didn't like history at all, writing Hattie Big Sky got me absolutely hooked on the genre. I feel like a real detective as I scour and hunt for facts and details. I had been doing some research about World War II and the Japanese incarceration camps, with the idea that it would be part of another book I was working on. That didn't jell, but I had discovered Pastor Emery Andrews' story -- about moving his family from Seattle to Twin Falls so he could continue to serve his congregation after they were "relocated" to Minidoka -- and really wanted to find a way to tell it in a book for kids. Scholastic's invitation to write for Dear America came at the perfect time! Though I admired Pastor Andrews' courage tremendously, I Iearned that his choices were tough on his family. I thought back to myself as a 12 or 13-year-old, and could easily imagine how upset I would've been to be uprooted from my home and friends. I find many of my stories start with such a what-if question: What if I had been Pastor Andrews' daughter?

What kind of research did you do about the Japanese incarceration and about life during World War II?

It might be easier to talk about the kind of research I didn't do! I read dozens of books on the topic, of course, going over bibliographies with a magnifying glass (sometimes literally!) to make sure I didn't miss any juicy leads. The Densho Project ( has a fabulous archive of videotaped interviews with incarcerees, as well as other historical information. I spent many hours in the special collections at the University of Washington and the Seattle Public Libraries. The internet makes it so much easier to access information as well; not only is there a wealth of material now online from the Library of Congress, I also discovered sites such as the one devoted to sailors who had served on the USS Enterprise. Finally, I interviewed people connected with the story, including Pastor Andrews' son, Brooks.

How does writing a novel in diary form compare to writing a regular novel?

This was something I really struggled with. My poor editor patiently tried to get me to understand that the book needed to suggest a diary, not literally be one. My first drafts were as holey as an old pair of socks because I was trying too hard to write as if I were a 13-year-old keeping a diary. It finally clicked with me that I needed to fill in more of the blanks for my typical reader who would not have as firm a grasp on World War II history as I did. So entries are more detailed than they would be in a real diary; the trick was to keep them from sounding like excerpts from a history text! I kept Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, close at hand to study how she revealed historical details and information through Birdy's diary entries. I must say, however, once I found Piper's voice, the writing went much more smoothly.

What are some of your own favorite books and authors?

Never force a bookworm to name favorite books!!! That being said, I never miss a Karen Cushman title (though I confess that Matilda Bone is my favorite of hers). Other novelists I tremendously admire include Frances O'Roark Dowell, Barbara O'Connor, Dave Patneaude, Karen Hesse, Kate DiCamillo, Trenton Lee Stewart, M.T. Anderson (not the Octavian Nothing books), Ingrid Law, Cynthia Lord, Susan Patron, Jennifer Holm, among others. Picture book authors I read and study include Marie Louise Gay, Ann Whitford Paul, Helen Ketteman, Laura Kvasnosky, Mary Nethery, Bonny Becker and Kathryn Galbraith. Of course, I am leaving tons of favorites out!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am very grateful to Scholastic for allowing me to tell Piper's story. It's not "sexy" like one set in the war zone of Pearl Harbor or concentration camps of Europe might be, but it is so important because that episode in our past -- our shameful treatment of fellow Americans -- doesn't simply reveal to us our failings as human beings, it also provides inspiration for overcoming those flaws. I hope Piper's story encourages my readers to learn more about this moment in American history.

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