Thursday, May 28, 2009

Genre Generosity: Cross Training Critiques

“The Other Half of Life is a wonderful introduction for young readers to contemporary history and its traumatic and moral challenges.”--Elie Wiesel

HANK: Yesterday was something completely different, right? Today--something Completely Different! Turns out, Kim Ablon Whitney is my neighbor! But we met at a book event..and her book just sounded so great...I just had to invite her to meet you all.

KIM: The Other Half of Life is based on the true story of the motor ship, the St. Louis. The St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany in May of 1939 carrying 900 Jewish refugees escaping Hitler, bound for Cuba. The book follows two fictional teenage characters and imagines the lives they may have lived until events and immigration laws conspired to change their fates.

I was actually doing research for another book when I came across the story of the St. Louis. I was shocked that I had never heard of it--especially since I'm very interested in World War II history and the Holocaust. I started talking to friends and family about the St. Louis and I found that most people under the age of 45 hadn't heard of it either. I felt I wanted to try to bring this forgotten chapter of the Holocaust to life for younger generations.

HANK: This story is so sad....what were the challenges of writing it? And especially for young adults?

KIM: Yes, it's absolutely heartbreaking and that led to a big challenge--making the book an enjoyable read and at the same time not shying away from the tragedy. I tried to concentrate on developing the characters and their relationships and layering happy moments with the tough ones. As much as the passengers on the St. Louis were dealing with very painful issues, they were also living their lives--laughing, loving, arguing--doing all the normal things we do every day.

HANK: Did writing this change your life? How?

KIM: I interviewed a passenger on the St. Louis and spoke with several other people who lived in Germany during that time period. At a recent bookstore reading I did, I noticed an older woman sitting the back row. I just had this feeling she had a personal connection to the Holocaust. She came up and introduced herself afterwards and shared her story--both she and her husband survived the camps.

It's one thing to read about the Holocaust but to get to meet and listen to people who actually lived through the events.... if I hadn't written this book I would have never gotten these chances.

HANK:. What do you wish someone had told you before you started this whole book thing?

KIM: I wish someone had told me how much luck is involved in the success of a book. I used to think that if you wrote a good book it would get published and be successful. I've since learned that the formula for success isn't so simple. While the quality of the book and the marketing budget of the publisher help to determine the commercial success of a book, it also has a lot to do with luck.

Word of mouth is huge when it comes to books and certain books also just happen to capture the zeitgeist. Sometimes a current event that mirrors an issue in a book catapults it to the top of reading lists. I know now how many great books there are out there that don't get the attention or readership they deserve. As a writer this can be somewhat disheartening but on the positive side it makes you re-evaluate why you write. If you write for commercial success or monetary reward, you're bound to be disapointed. If you write because you love to and because you feel you have a story that's worth telling, the reward will be in the process of the writing.

HANK: And you have a writer's group--a rather unusual one!

KIM: Generally writers come together based on the fact that they all write the same type of books—thrillers, sci-fi, children’s books etc. Since the works I’ve had published to date are all young adult novels, one would assume that my writers group would consist of other young adult authors.

In fact, my writers group consists of two published authors of adult thrillers, Lynne Heitman and Mike Wiecek, and Samantha Cameron, an unpublished writer who is working on a literary historical novel. Lynne, our unofficial group leader, brought us together five years ago and we have morphed into a tight-knit, supportive group.

Instead of our respective genres distancing us, the variety in what we write has brought us closer together. We open up each other’s insular genre-specific worlds—each of us benefits from "cross-training" writer-style.

We marvel at Samantha’s beautiful language as she evokes 1900’s New Orleans in all its sights, smells and sounds and find ourselves trying to add lyrical descriptions to our own prose. We are captivated by Lynne’s fire-cracker dialogue and Mike’s knack for setting scenes with exquisite details, and check our own stories to make sure they are never dull or vague. I like to think I add perspective on teen characters and distinct voice, which is crucial to successful YA novels.

As a result of the mix of genres, I’m less tolerant of a slow narrative pace and more adept at weaving crucial information into dialogue. In my latest novel, The Other Half of Life, I’ve even incorporated a mystery into the other plot lines. Before my writing group I never would have thought I was capable of doing this, but working with my group showed me how it was done and also gave me the confidence to try it myself.

I would encourage everyone to try to work with and learn from writers outside of your genre. It’s easy to "stay with our own kind" but by expanding our worlds and tapping the talents of others, our work can only get better.

HANK: Thanks, Kim!
Kim lives in Newton, Mass. with her husband, two young sons, and greyhound. She is a graduate of Tufts University, and has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. She is a member of the PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus and is the coordinator of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.


  1. Kim, I'm off to look for your book. I'm just starting a historical YA myself, and it sounds like you deal beautifully with the challenges I see.

    My critique group started out as all mystery writers. Now we've morphed into a group for mystery, nonfiction, historical, teen, etc, etc...! Everybody has their strengths and the important part is the constructuve and supportive help we all give each other! :)

  2. Hi Kim, welcome to Jungle red! First of all, what a beautiful cover--that's surely part of your luck!

    Your group sounds wonderful--a great mixture of strengths. I know Mike and Lynne--you are lucky to have them as readers. And the new book sounds intriguing. Historicals have not usually been my cup of tea, but with Rhys on board, I'm expanding my horizons:).

  3. Welcome, Kim. Yours is the kind of book I hope they teach in schools where a generation of children is growing up not knowing that the holocaust existed.

  4. Wow Kim,
    This book sounds awesome. I'm also a big WWII history buff and have never heard of this. It sounds like you've handled it with just the right sensitivity.

    Welcome to Jungle Red, I'm not far from Newton and hope I get to meet you in person.