This sweet, funny novel follows fifth-grader Genie Kunkle through a tumultuous year. From the first day of school, Genie knows there will be good, bad, and in-between. The good? She’s in homeroom with her best friend, Sarah. The bad? Sarah’s friend from camp, Blair, is a new student at their school, and is itching to take Genie’s place as Sarah’s BFF. The in-between? Genie is excited to be elected to write her class’s blog, where she’s tasked with tracking the wishes and dreams of her class. But expressing her opinion in public can be scary—especially when her opinion might make the rest of her class upset.
Elisabeth Dahl authentically captures the ups and downs of a tween girl’s life, and the dramas—both little and big—that fill the scary transition between childhood and adolescence.
I got a chance to interview Elisabeth about GENIE WISHES, the writing process, and the whirl of being a debut author--and I was also lucky enough to snag a surprise guest for a bonus interview! First up, my conversation with Elisabeth:
Caroline: Can you tell us a little about how you wrote GENIE WISHES?
Elisabeth: I wrote the 24,000-word first draft during a very intense month in the winter of 2009. Revision came later and was extensive (the final book is more like 40,000 words), but that chilly month was responsible for the core of the story.
Caroline: I love Genie—she reminds me vividly of what it’s like to be a fifth grader. She also gets into a couple of embarrassing situations that gave me painful, hilarious flashbacks to my own preteen life. Is anything from Genie’s story based on your own experiences growing up?
Elisabeth: Thanks for loving Genie, and I apologize for the painful flashbacks. Yes, I definitely mined my own life here and there in creating Genie’s. For instance, like Genie, I experienced the humiliation of having a more mature classmate point out (shriekingly, mockingly) that I didn’t yet shave my legs. And like Genie, I was a faculty/scholarship kid at a private school, which gave me a bit of an observer’s perspective. Genie also gets to live in my grandparents’ house and eat sand tarts and “static brownies,” some of my family’s favorite desserts.
Caroline: You created the fantastic line drawings that illustrate the book. How did that process work? Did you include the drawings in your early drafts, or did they appear later in the writing and editing process?
Elisabeth: They were part of the story from the first day—maybe even the first hour. I think of them as the catalyst for the novel; they kept me moving forward, far past the length of anything I’d written before.
|Elisabeth Dahl signs a book for a fan at the |
GENIE WISHES launch party in Baltimore, MD.
Elisabeth: Although I lived in DC and the San Francisco Bay Area long enough to feel comfortable using either of them as a setting for a book, GENIE WISHES is so closely related to my own experience of fifth grade, Baltimore seemed the obvious choice for this particular book.
Caroline: Could you describe the process of working with your editor? How did GENIE change and grow from early draft to published novel?
Elisabeth: GENIE started as a truly episodic novel in which family plots and school/friend plots shared almost equal time. The wonderful Maggie Lehrman at ABRAMS saw a better book inside it, one that had a stronger narrative arc and focused more tightly on the school/friend aspects. And even before Maggie there was Marissa Walsh, my agent for the book, who pushed and prodded the manuscript in all the right editorial ways, to ready it for submission.
Caroline: You write for both adults and children. Is there anything you do differently depending on who your audience will be, or are the two processes more similar than different?
Elisabeth: You nailed it—they’re more similar than different. I often draw an analogy to being at a party and talking to different people. When you turn from talking to adults to talking to children, you change your tone a bit, or your subject matter. But it’s still talking.
Caroline: What are the books that have inspired you most as a writer?
Elisabeth: Studying the intricacies of Melville’s BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER for a high school paper was sort of my conversion experience. It turned my affection and appreciation for words and stories into a deep sort of book lust. (I have the Melville House edition of BARTLEBY on my desk right now.) Jeannette Walls’s THE GLASS CASTLE was the best contemporary memoir I’ve read to date. Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning WHEN YOU REACH ME was perfect—so perfect, in fact, that I had to have a character reference it in GENIE. I could go on and on…
Caroline: Thanks, Elisabeth!
But don't take those party hats off yet. Instead, please welcome super-special surprise guest Maggie Lehrman, Elisabeth's editor at Abrams! I got to ask Maggie a few questions about working on GENIE WISHES from the other side of the editorial desk:
Caroline: What made you sit up and take notice when you read GENIE WISHES for the first time? Was there a particular moment when you fell in love with the story?
Maggie: I just looked it up, and I first read GENIE in July of 2010. A while ago! Peering back through the sands of time (and cheating by reading the emails I wrote to Elisabeth's agent back then) I loved the book's "natural slice-of-life quality" and its "gentle humor." I believe the words "classic appeal" were tossed around, as were compliments for Elisabeth's "clean, direct prose." I know (and don't have to cheat to remember) that I loved the sometimes-deadpan sense of humor; I think I first knew I wanted to edit the book when Genie says her name sounds like a weird instrument: The Haddock Kunkle. That's something that's stayed in the book from the very first draft, back in 2010, though there are many other things that have changed.
Maggie: Fifth grade was a huge transition year, definitely. I think it's the time most people start to have a sense of awareness of their friends and their classroom as a society. I remember friendships started to shift a lot that year, but we were still young enough that things hadn't gotten as bitter and contentious as they would in junior high :) Of course, we didn't have the internet when I was in fifth grade, so a lot of what Genie does wouldn't have happened to me — but it still feels absolutely familiar to me.
Caroline: Do you consider yourself more of a Genie or more of a Blair?
Maggie: I am a Genie, except that Genie is much less neurotic than I am. That might be partly why I enjoy reading her stories — she reacts the way I wish I could. (Would anyone answer Blair???? Even if you were a Blair????) And, okay, maybe I'm partly a Hassan — not that I would ever make a mean website like he does, but I understand his competitiveness.
Caroline: Genie's job as class blogger is to record her class's wishes, hopes, and dreams. What are your wishes, hopes, and dreams for GENIE WISHES as it goes out into the world?
Maggie: I wish for many happy readers, hope for them to love it as much as I do, and dream that it will find the exact right reader at exactly the right time in her life.
Thanks to both Maggie and Elisabeth for being such fabulous question-answerers, and for writing and editing what is already one of my favorite books of the year.
If you haven't already gotten your own copy of GENIE WISHES, you can order one from IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your local bookstore.
Elisabeth Dahl lives with her husband and son in Baltimore, Maryland, where she writes for both children and adults. All her life, people have asked whether she is related to Roald Dahl. Sadly, she’s not, but she’s looking forward to being his shelf neighbor with her first novel. Visit her online at elisabethdahl.com.