Tuesday, November 13, 2012

APOCALYPSE NOW: Interview with Helen Phillips, author of HERE WHERE THE SUNBEAMS ARE GREEN

Today I had the pleasure of talking to Helen Phillips, author of the middle grade novel HERE WHERE THE SUNBEAMS ARE GREEN. Check it out—it hits shelves today! You can order your copy now from Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, or Amazon, or go pick one up at your local independent bookstore. Here's a little more about it from Goodreads:

Mad's dad is the Bird Guy. He'll go anywhere to study birds. So when he's offered a bird-tracking job in Central America, his bags are packed and he's jungle bound.

But going bird tracking in the jungle and disappearing completely are very different things, and when the Very Strange and Incredibly Creepy Letter arrives, Mad can't shake the terrible feeling that her father is in trouble.

Roo, Mad's younger sister, is convinced that the letter is a coded message. And their mom is worried, because the letter doesn't sound like Dad at all. But Mad is sure it's a sign of something sinister.

The only way to get to the bottom of it is to go to the Lava Bird Volcano and find their dad themselves. Though they never could have imagined what they're about to discover.

From new talent Helen Phillips, Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green is the story of what can happen when two sisters make some unusual friends, trust in each other, and bravely face a jungle of trouble all to bring their family back together.

Hi, Helen! Congratulations on your fantastic new book!

This is your first book for young readers, but you've already published a book for adults. How has your experience writing for kids been different, both in terms of the writing process and the publishing process?

My book for adults, And Yet They Were Happy, is comprised entirely of 340-word fable-like stories that add up to tell a larger narrative about an apocalyptic world. In writing it, I was focusing on the challenges of language, metaphor, image, conceit; those pieces are almost like prose poems.

After finishing And Yet They Were Happy, I wanted to challenge myself to write something that would require a very different set of writing skills: developing characters, creating a plot, building suspense. It was fascinating and quite fun to try my hand at these other elements of craft.

The publishing process for each book was as different as the writing process. And Yet They Were Happy found a home at a wonderful small press, Leapfrog, that was excited about publishing my weirdo book. Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green is being published by Delacorte Press of Random House Children’s Division, and it has been a pleasure to work with the many smart, energetic people there, and to feel the clout of such a grand old publishing house.

HERE WHERE THE SUNBEAMS ARE GREEN takes place in a jungle at the edge of a volcano in an unspecified Central American country. Did you spend time in the Central American jungle for research purposes? Do you have any personal experience with volcanoes, or with ornithology?

I lived in Costa Rica for two summers when I was in high school and college, studying Spanish and doing volunteer work. Though (unfortunately!) I didn’t get the chance to travel to Central America for research purposes while I was writing the book, the images from those first encounters with the rain forest have always stuck with me. Coming from the dry foothills of Colorado, it was like visiting a different planet to experience such a lush and humid environment. During my time in Costa Rica, I made a couple of trips to the famous Arenal Volcano; it astounded me that people would live in such close proximity to a volcano that steamed during the day and glowed red at night, and which had erupted as recently as 1998. Its classic shape and lively seismology served as the inspiration for my Lava Bird Volcano. I don’t have much personal experience with ornithology, aside from growing up in a place where there were many different bird species and being raised by a father with a natural reverence for birds.

The myth of the lava-throated volcano trogon reminded me a little bit of the myth of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Did you draw from any existing mythology in creating yours?

I didn’t draw directly from any existing mythology in creating the myth of the lava-throated volcano trogon, but while working on the third draft of the book, I had the epiphany that the volcano should be personified as a goddess rather than as a god, so in that sense I was definitely tapping into the old idea of volcano as female rather than male.

Your narrator, Mad, is very much an ordinary girl, whereas her little sister Roo has a fireball personality and all sorts of surprising abilities. What made you want to write in Mad's voice rather than Roo's? Did you ever consider telling part of the story from Roo's perspective? 

You’re right; Roo, as the more traditionally heroic sister, could be considered the natural protagonist of the book. But Mad is the writer, the thinker, the one who steps back and analyzes situations rather than charging forward. And her emotional journey over the course of the book is far more dynamic than Roo’s—she is discovering within herself a courageousness she didn’t know she possessed. From the beginning, I knew that Mad, not Roo, would be my narrator.

The secret answer to this question is that the Mad/Roo relationship very much apes the relationship I have with my younger sister Alice, so I wrote it from Mad’s perspective because I am Mad … 

The La Lava resort and spa is gorgeous but incredibly creepy—Mad endures a rather unpleasant facial there, and her mom participates in a yoga retreat which turns her into a brainwashed crazy person. Have you ever had a terrible spa experience? 

Well, the one and only time I got a facial, I found the part where they wrap your face in almost-burning-hot towels to be a bit intense. But the truth is I’m a sucker for yoga and massages and all those other luxuries that I don’t get to enjoy anywhere near as often as I’d like. I did get a kick out of transforming something as unobjectionable as yoga into a villain here; hopefully I won’t be cast out of the next yoga class I attend. I suppose I do ultimately find spa culture a bit sinister, such intense focus on one’s own comfort and beauty, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find me on a massage table once or twice a year.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you're working on next?

I’m working on a book that aims to combine the language/metaphor/image/conceit challenges of And Yet They Were Happy with the character/plot/suspense challenges of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. We shall see.

How do you plan to celebrate your release day?

Probably by dancing around the apartment with my five-month-old daughter while Louis Armstrong sings “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” That’s how I usually celebrate things these days.

The Lucky 13s are a superstitious lot. Do you have any superstitions or special lucky rituals, especially in regard to writing? 

Yes! So many of them. But if I shared them they might lose their power, right? I can tell you that every day during my writing time I drink Celestial Seasonings Decaf Coconut Thai Chai. Definitely wouldn’t be where I am without that. 

Thanks so much for talking to us, and congratulations on your release day!


Helen Phillips is the author of the middle-grade adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Division, November 2012), published internationally under the title Upside Down in the Jungle (Chicken House UK, 2012; Chicken House Germany, 2013). She is also the author of the novel-in-fables And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011), a semi-finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, The Iowa Review Nonfiction Award, the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Award, and the Meridian Editors’ Prize. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their baby daughter.

This interview was conducted by Lucky13s member Alison Cherry as part of an ongoing series of interviews with The Apocalypsies—YA, MG, and children's book authors debuting in 2012.

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