Last week I reviewed Annette’s book of time-traveling kids, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When. Tomorrow I’ll review the sequel, A Different Day, A Different Destiny. Today, I’m happy to have Annette visiting to share a few words with Mother Daughter Book Club about her background, why she’s writing a series on kids who travel through time and more.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
AL: I’m from Scotland originally, but my family moved to Stevenage, a small city north of London, when I was quite small. So I grew up as a Scot in England, which was a pretty odd experience. In the early eighties, I had what was at the time an incredibly amazing opportunity, when I was accepted as an exchange student to Northern California. I had a blast in high school: I felt like I was living in the movie Grease. I quickly returned to California to attend college, which, again, was very unusual for a Brit in those days. Then, having wanted to become a newspaper reporter since I was seven years old, I abruptly changed my mind, and decided to become a history professor instead, because dead people, unlike live interviewees, don’t challenge a reporter’s version of events. After finishing my PhD in early American and British history, I moved to Georgia to take up a university post. I quit my job two years ago, but, as I like to point out, I’m still a professional historian, and I still love to chat with historian friends about background material for my novels.
What do you like most about writing?
AL: It’s pure escapism. It’s a luxurious time spent daydreaming instead of worrying about everyday matters. The best part is when I stop consciously putting words into characters’ mouths, and start transcribing what they say, as they take on a life of their own. It’s a very weird feeling, and at first I worried that I was going a bit demented, so it was a huge relief to discover that this is a normal experience among authors!
How did you decide to write about time travel?
AL: It was kind of a no-brainer for a historian to turn to writing about the past, but of course, I could always have turned my hand to historical fiction. I wasn’t drawn to the sci-fi aspects of time travel at all—I don’t understand the physics, and don’t pretend to. What strikes me as a cultural historian was that so few kids’ novels which are set in the past, whether time travel or historical novels, captured the sense of how differently people thought in the past. So I set out to take three very modern kids, living in a town that’s a bit of an eccentric time warp but is nonetheless part of the twenty-first century, and drop them off in places that I know very well, both personally and as a historian, so that their confusion about how to act becomes fun to read about, while showing that the past is indeed a foreign country. It’s great fun to write, too.
Why did you choose World War II England as a place for your characters to travel to?
AL: Like many Brits of my generation, I have an obsessive interest in The War (we always called it that, with implied capital letters.) We feel like we missed out somehow, although why we would want to suffer through bombing and food rationing is beyond me…. A few years ago, I started creating time travel workshops for kids, where we spent days making believe we were in the past. I decided to treat myself and “send” us first to wartime England. I had no idea if the kids would be remotely interested, so it was kind of selfish, but they were absolutely fascinated. It was pretty surreal for me to watch all these kids from rural Georgia pretending to be British kids in 1940, so I can only imagine what it felt like for the guest speakers who visited us who had actually lived through the Blitz. The kids’ programs are what kickstarted my idea for The Snipesville Chronicles, so it was probably inevitable that I would set the first book in World War II England. The whole series will be set in British and American history, for reasons that I hope will become clear…
Why did you insert a double time travel and send one of your characters back even further to World War I?
AL: I wanted to show how quickly people and places can change. Britain in 1914, the year the First World War began, and Britain in 1945, the year World War II ended, were very different places, and yet only thirty years had passed, less than most people’s lifetimes. People too often assume that the present is the only thing that counts, that the past is quaint and irrelevant, but this isn’t so. The past never entirely disappears. I hope Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When spurs readers to think about how quickly and profoundly the way we think changes over time, and yet how much we have in common with people throughout history.
Why did you decide to make one of your characters a black boy? How did that limit and/or enhance your story line?
AL: Brandon arrived in my head as who he is. Having lived and taught in a small town in the South for many years now, I couldn’t imagine why I would make all my main characters white: Sure, I’m not black, but neither am I an American by birth, or a teenager, or a boy, so all my main characters took a leap of imagination on my part.
Early in the story development, Brandon began to run into all kinds of attitudes toward race in early twentieth-century Britain, and I did briefly wonder whether it would be a problem that his blackness would always be an issue in the stories. Then it struck me that this is how it has always been for black people in Britain and the United States, and that I should be no less honest about “race” in my fiction than in my history. What’s most important is how Brandon reacts. He is taken aback at first by his reception in a pre-multicultural England, but he’s no wuss, and he refuses to be defined by the color of his skin. Like many young people I’ve known in Georgia, he is comfortable with who he is, as an individual and as a member of a middle-class black family. He’s not perfect, and he’s a little eccentric, which makes him an ordinary but interesting and likeable kid. All in all, I am very pleased with Brandon. Recently, there has been much blog discussion about the lack of black characters in kids’ novels, other than slaves and members of the civil rights movement, and I hope that Brandon is a modest contribution toward addressing that absence.
Tell us a little bit about your second book in the Snipesville Chronicles.
AL: A Different Day, A Different Destiny, true to its title, is quite a different book from Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When. I want to surprise my readers with every new entry in the series. This book is much more of an odyssey than the first one, with all three kids taking long separate journeys in the year 1851. This is a time when kids are providing an exploited labor force in both Britain’s industrial revolution and America’s cotton boom, and the kids get caught up in both. At the same time as they are trying to make their way in Victorian times, they have been told to find a modern pocket calculator to get home to the present day, which is even harder than it sounds…
How many books do you plan for this series?
AL: Five, but I am leaving open the possibility of a sixth.
Anything else you’d like to say to readers at Mother Daughter Book Club?
AL: If you read Don’t Know Where together, I would love to hear about your group’s reactions to the character of Hannah, who would always rather go shopping than read a book, and who has found out that you can act out your issues in the past as well as in the present. Readers respond very strongly to her, but girls are afraid to admit out loud that they identify with her, so they claim that they have more in common with Alex or Brandon instead. Like I believe them. Yeah, right.