We’ve had some talented, accomplished, and well-known authors on Damsels in Regress in the past three years, but today’s interview is definitely a sparkly jewel in our crown. Please welcome three-time Newbery Honor winner, and author of Monday’s reviewed book, The Trouble with May Amelia, Jennifer L. Holm!
1. Our Only May Amelia was a great story whose characters definitely left room for more stories, but the book as a whole seemed to stand on its own. Did you always intend to write a sequel, or did The Trouble with May Amelia come to you later?
I hadn’t initially planned to write a sequel. And then a few years after it was published, I came around and decided I would write a companion novel from the point of view of her best brother, Wilbert. But when I got down to writing it, I couldn’t get May Amelia’s voice out of my head (she’s bossy that way.) So I just gave in.
2. May Amelia has such a distinct voice and the writing style is unusual (the dialogue not being in quotations, the use of randomly capitalized words for emphasis). Was it hard to get back into that voice after writing several other books, or did it feel comfortable from the beginning?
It was strangely comfortable, which isn’t always the case. Also, in a weird way, I missed her. My mom gave me this t-shirt that says “Writer’s block is when your imaginary friends won’t talk back to you.” I think this is perfectly true. I like it when I can hold a conversation with my characters. (Now that sounded a little strange … but, hey, writers are a strange bunch.)
3. You’ve said that these books were based on family history. How much is factual and what is from your imagination?
If the book was a cake recipe, I would say the batter was my imagination, the frosting was the historical details, and the icing roses were the facts. There was no May Amelia in real life, of course. Although her name sort of lives on in my daughter (we named her Millie May).
4. What sort of research did you do for both of May Amelia’s stories? What was one interesting piece of information that you weren’t able to fit in?
My research involved a lot of oral family histories, as well as general research about the area and the Finnish immigrant experience. If anything, it brought me a little closer to my Finnish heritage, especially the cooking. I can cook a mean laxloda now (a creamy salmon and potato casserole).
Also, I’m a sucker for local historical societies—I adore them. I love crawling through dusty collections and hanging out with archivists and historians. When I went to college (Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA), I worked in the Archive in the library and it ruined me for life.
So many bits didn’t fit in, and that’s always disappointing. But ultimately, the history has to push the story forward.
5. How is the research for May Amelia’s stories easier, harder, or just different than the research you’ve done for your other historical novels?
It may have been a little easier because my father helped me a lot, as did my aunts (so I had first-hand stories). They had long memories for nickel knowledge. “Nickel knowledge” was what my dad called little historical details, like how it felt on a cold night when his father would lay his coat on top of him in bed to keep him warm when he was a child.
6. May Amelia’s claim to fame is that she’s the only girl in her family and one of the only ones in her whole region. She’s not your only character to be the only girl in a family full of boys, either. Does this come from your own family experiences or is it just a situation you enjoy exploring?
Well, I guess you could say I have plenty of experience. I’m one of five children (and the only girl.)
7. May Amelia calls Wilbert her “best brother.” Which of May Amelia’s seven brothers was your favorite?
Matti (the eldest brother) was my favorite in the first book. But in Trouble, it was Kaarlo— which surprised me as much as anybody else. It’s easy to be the Golden Child (like big brother Matti) and go away and impress people. It’s much harder to be the Good Child who stays behind and takes care of a family when it falls apart.
8. Are there any plans to explore other aspects of your family history or other time periods in future books? Or are there any time periods you’ve already written in that you want to revisit?
I’m starting to feel the tug to go back to Key West and revisit Turtle and the Diaper Gang, so who knows? (Besides, who wouldn’t want an excuse to go back to Key West?)
Thanks again, Jenni!
No, thank you!