Monday, May 18, 2009

Book Launch: Also Known As Harper

Ann Haywood Leal's debut book, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER, is garnering major buzz! Here's an interview with Ann:

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
Harper Lee Morgan is an aspiring poet, which isn't surprising, seeing as how she's named after her mama's favorite writer, Harper Lee. And life is giving her a lot to write about. Daddy walked out, leaving the family with too many bills and too little money. When Harper's family gets evicted, Harper must stay away from school to take care of her little brother, Hemingway, while Mama scrambles to find more work. Their whole world has been turned upside down, which Harper could just about handle, if it wasn't for the poetry contest at school. More than anything, she wants to get up on that stage and read her poems out loud.

I have been a volunteer at my local soup kitchen for four years now. Before I actually walked through the doors on the first day, I'd had some pretty stereotypical expectations in my mind about who the clients would be. I expected dirty-bum-in-the-alley people; drug and alcohol-addicted adults without dreams or lives or career aspirations. But that's not what I see at all. We get a lot of families with children. And quite a few of the adults have jobs--they just can't quite make enough to make ends meet for their families. I started thinking about what their stories might actually be--how they got to that point--and the chances they had of getting out of their predicament. I thought about how the children still had hope on their faces. Those thoughts and concerns and expressions on the faces of the children turned into Harper and her story.

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?
ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER is my first published book, but I think I started trying to write stories when I was about five. My mom saved a lot of them. I have always written on any available scrap of paper! I wrote my first 100 page novel when I was in the sixth grade. My best friend was also working on a novel. I can remember lugging all our supplies up a rope ladder to her tree house. I also wrote some chapters at school, mostly on colored notebook paper. When I finished it, I wrote to Judy Blume and told her all about it! She wrote back to me and the school librarian put the letter up in a special place in the library. I was considered a geek at school, but everyone thought I was cool when I got that letter--for about a week, anyway!

Can you describe your path to the publication of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER?
I wrote ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER about two years ago and sent an early draft to a few editors. While I was waiting to hear from them, I decided I was going to really focus not on the selling of my manuscript so much, but on trying to make it as good as I possibly could. Around that time, I got a monthly newsletter in the mail called "Children's Writer". I read an article that had an interview with Dan Lazar, an agent from Writers House. I remember being impressed with how straightforward and honest he was--just the type of person I'd love to have represent me. So we had some e-mail correspondence and after a few weeks, he called me and signed me up. I can't remember a whole lot of what was said in that phone call--I was pretty excited! Dan is an amazing agent. We did another revision and he got some interest from a few people. I can remember when he told me he thought there might be an auction. I had no idea what that would be like, but it was very exciting and kind of scary at the same time. I was ecstatic when Holt bought it--they have been very good to me.

Do you have a mentor or critique group?
I have taken a writing classes, over the past few years, with Patricia Reilly Giff. I would consider her a mentor to a lot of people. I don't think I've ever seen someone who is more generous with their time and knowledge. She is such a gift to new writers. I have a wonderful critique group of three other people: Pam Farley, Mary Jo Scott, and Margaret Welch. We have met once a month for about the last three years. They are honest and encouraging and I don't know what I'd do without them!

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Write every day. Make time for it and schedule it into your daily routine. I teach full-time and have a family, so I know that isn't always easy to do. And it may sound a bit cliche, but never give up!

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?
I just got my second degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. It was extra meaningful for me, because I got to do it with my thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly!

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
I am working on the revisions of my second book, also with Henry Holt. It will be out in 2010. Esther and her younger sister, Ruth, are dealing with a mother who I'm hoping will bring out a lot of conflicting emotions in the reader!

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER?
My website is You can read the first chapter and print out a discussion guide.

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