Friday, January 20, 2012

Author Interview: Kristin Levine, author of The Lions of Little Rock

Kristin Levine

I am delighted to welcome author Kristin Levine to The Fourth Musketeer.  Kristin was kind enough to answer some questions for me and the Fourth Musketeer readers about her newest historical fiction novel, set in Little Rock in 1958.

Q:  The Lions of Little Rock is your second historical fiction novel.  What draws you particularly to writing historical fiction for young people?

As a child, I often found history class really boring, I think because I could never relate to long lists of dates and events.  But once I found a person to latch onto, I suddenly found history fascinating (and much easier to remember).  So I guess I like writing historical fiction because it's the kind of books I enjoyed reading when I was in school.

Q:  Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write a novel set in 1958 in Little Rock--the year after the historic integration of the "Little Rock Nine." 

My mother lived in Little Rock until she was nine.  If her family hadn't moved away, her older sister would have been in the sophomore class at Central High School in 1957 when the Little Rock Nine integrated the school.  My aunt said she's always wondered what it would have been like to have been at Central during that time. So I was actually planning to write about 1957, but when I went to Little Rock to conduct interviews, the people I spoke to talked more about 1958-1959 when all the high schools were closed and no one could go to school.  I had never heard about the school closings, even though they'd happened in my home state of Virginia as well.  I decided that since there were already so many great books about 1957, it would be more interesting to write about the so-called "lost year" instead.

Q:  Your main character, Marlee, is painfully shy--so much so that saying five words aloud at school feels like a major accomplishment.  You write with such sensitivity in her voice; was she modeled on someone you know?

Yes, when I was in junior high there was a girl who almost never spoke.  I believe she had some sort of a sp­eech impediment.  Once I tried briefly to be friendly to her, but when she didn't respond right away, I went back to simply ignoring her like everyone else.  I've always wondered what would have happened if I'd tried a little harder.

I'm not shy at all in person (in fact, I love to talk), but sometimes I do feel really shy when posting things online.  I see other people posting all these cute, clever things on Facebook and I don't know how they do it.  I'll obsess for 20 minutes over a status update, then decide that maybe someone could misunderstand me and be offended and end up not posting anything all.  Maybe it has to do with being a writer and feeling like everything I write has to be just right.  (And yes, I've spent way too much time figuring out how to answer these questions!) 

In any case, like Marlee I'm trying to get better at participating in discussions, especially online, and not just lurking in the background.

Q:  In researching Little Rock in the late 1950's, what was one aspect of  life at that time that particularly surprised you?

At the time I was researching this book (late 2008) my mother was actively campaigning for Barack Obama.  It was funny to me that she was using the exact same canvassing techniques that were used during the 1959 school board election in my book.

I was also surprised by the "television classes" that were offered after the schools closed.  "Distance learning" seems like such a hot new topic right now, but I guess it really isn't such a new idea. 

Q:  Issues of racism and social justice are featured prominently in both in Lions of Little Rock and your earlier novel, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had.  Can you comment on what draws you to telling these kinds of stories? 

As a child, my parents were active in the pairing of my mainly white school with a mainly black school across town.  When I asked them why I had to be bussed, they told me what a great opportunity it was to be with other people who didn't look or act exactly like me. That made a huge impression on me.  To this day I believe that integration and diversity and social justice aren't important issues just for minorities, but for everyone. 

Q:  Can you tell us a little bit about any upcoming writing projects you are working on?

I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to do next.  I've always wanted to write sci-fi or fantasy, which at first seems like a big leap, but I guess it's really not.  In historical fiction, you're trying to create a time and place, just like you're creating a different world in sci-fi or fantasy.

But of course I also really enjoy historical fiction.  And now that I've based one book on my grandfather (The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had) and one book very loosely on my mother (The Lions of Little Rock) my father is clamoring that it's HIS turn for a book.  So there may be a book about a paperboy in Chicago in my future!

Q:  What books do you currently have on your nightstand (or are reading in your e-reader?)  Do you read largely children's books or adult fiction?

I read everything.  I tend to find an author I like (Robin McKinley, Christopher Paul Curtis, Charlaine Harris), and then read everything by that person.  Two YA books I enjoyed recently were Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  My book club reads mainly adult fiction; In the Woods by Tana French was their last selection.

Q:  What are some of your favorite historical fiction titles for children and/or adults?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is one of my all-time favorite books.  As a child I enjoyed books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.  In 9th grade I loved long, historical novels like Shogun by James Clavell. 

Q:  With your background in screenwriting, are you also drawn to historical stories in the movies?  If so, do you have any recent favorites?

Yes, most definitely, though I'm afraid my suggestions aren't very recent.  With two small kids I'm afraid I don't get to the movies as much as I used to!

Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite movies.  (If you can, please see it in a movie theater - it's even more impressive on a big screen.)  I became fascinated with T.E. Lawrence after seeing the film, read all about him, and when we were in England, even made my parents visit the small town where he is buried.

The Civil War series by Ken Burns also made a huge impression on me.  It aired for the first time when I was in high school.  The photos, stories and music made the war seem so personal, and for the first time I was really excited about learning US history.

In general I love historical films - even when they aren't super accurate.  I don't think that's their job.  I just like being inspired to learn more.  

Thanks so much, Kristin, for being interviewed at The Fourth Musketeer!  I appreciate your taking the time to visit.  


Irene Latham said...

I'm a big fan of Kristin's -- and of her editor at Putnam. :) Thanks, you two, for the lovely interview. Can't wait to read!

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

My children will eventually graduate from Little Rock Central High School -- thanks for the great interview. Have the book marked to read.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Oh, I am excited to learn about The Lions of Little Rock and will definitely read it.

Smart move, Kristin, to write about the year after the big event!

jan godown annino said...

Fourth M/Margo - thanks for this fine interview. I feel as if I've been at a cozy workshop. This is my introduction to Kristin & am eager to catch up with The Best Bad .... & of now to be current with Lions... Each story sounds impressive & heartfelt.

Kristin - I vote for the Chicago/ newsboy novel next if the Muse, calendar & keyboard are in alignment? Very keen on the idea that these themes spring from your family stories/experiences. Kudos!


Ali B said...

The Lions of Little Rock sounds like a great book to add to my queue. Other historical fiction books that are worth a read are Revolution is Not a Dinner Party and Inside Out and Back Again. If you haven't read them, you should give them a try.

I look forward to visiting your blog in the future!

Kristin said...

Margo, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your wonderful blog - I really enjoyed it!


Carmela Martino said...

Hi Margo,
Thanks for participating in Interview Wednesday, and for the interesting interview.