I met Ann this summer at the SCBWI Summer Conference. We started chatting and I really liked her, even before it clicked that she was the fabulous writer that my friend Jolie had been telling us about. I loved Also Known as Harper, and it’s always great to know that authors are just as lovely as their books.
WT: Tell us about your novel, Also Known as Harper.
AHL: 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 just now. Daddy up and walked out, leaving them broke. Then Harper’s family gets evicted.
With Mama scrambling to find work, Harper has to skip school to care for her little brother, Hemingway. Their lives have been turned upside down, which Harper could just about handle—if it wasn’t for the writing contest at school. She wants nothing more than to get up on that stage and read her poems out loud . . .it is about perseverance, with some hope and humor mixed in.
WT: Where did the idea come from, and how was your road to publication?
AHL: I volunteer at my local soup kitchen with my family. Harper isn’t based on any one child in the meal center, but more on a feeling I got when I saw the children standing there in line with their parents. I wondered what their lives might actually be like.
I’d love to say, my road to publication, was smooth, without any forks, but I’ve been writing stories since I was about four years old and I have a whole room full of rejection letters! I just kept writing and trying to make my manuscripts the best they could be. I joined SCBWI and tried to listen carefully to comments made in manuscript critiques and workshops. After a while, I started to get some “good” rejection letters with personal notes jotted on them. A couple of years ago, I read an interview with an agent that really caught my eye. I had just finished the manuscript of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER, and I sent him a couple of chapters. He made some suggestions and when I did some revisions and sent it back to him, he offered to represent me.
WT:How different was your final draft from your first draft? Any big changes?
AHL: Hmmm…that’s a difficult question! The idea stayed the same, for the most part, but I’m very lucky to have a very hands-on agent and a wonderful editor. They are both incredibly good at coaxing more out of me!
WT: Why was it important for you for Harper to write poetry?
AHL: I think it is easy for a child in a situation like Harper’s to feel invisible. Writing poetry was a way for Harper to feel “heard” and worthwhile.
WT: You deal with serious themes of homelessness, alcoholism, abandonment- how have readers responded?
AHL: I am a teacher and I think the most difficult response for me to take came from a student who was in a temporary housing facility. One of the other teachers bought her a copy of ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. The little girl came into my classroom to ask me to sign the book and said, “Harper’s life is my life.” I had to turn away for a second and pretend like I was busy with something on my computer, because I didn’t want her to see me cry! She was standing there with such a strong, wise look. It was hard to see that in her eyes.
WT: What have you done for promotion- online and/or in-person?
AHL: I have really enjoyed doing blog interviews and bookstore and school visits. A few weeks ago, I went to the library in Auburn, Washington, where I got my first library card. I thought I was going to talk to a teen writing group, but a whole bunch of other people started walking in: my first grade teacher, my third grade teacher, the principal of my elementary school, my middle school English teacher….it was pretty overwhelming!
WT: That’s so cool! What are you working on now?
AHL: I have another middle-grade novel coming out (also with Henry Holt/Macmillan) next year. It is called SEARCHING FOR EZEKIEL and is about two young girls, dealing with a mother who I hope will bring out conflicting emotions in the reader…
WT: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
AHL: I LOVE to read. I always have! I also like to run and do karate. My fourteen-year-old daughter and I just took our second degree black belt tests together!
WT: How do you stay in touch with the writing community (e.g. critique group, SCBWI, social media, etc.)?
AHL: I love SCBWI; their conferences and workshops have been invaluable to me. I am a member of two critique groups, and I don’t know what I’d do without them! One of the critique groups has three other members and we have been together for over six years. I also am on Facebook, I just joined Twitter and I have a blog (www.annhaywoodleal.blogspot.com).
WT: What have you enjoyed reading recently?