Michael Ferrari, author of the middle-grade adventure novel BORN TO FLY, a book I adore. Michael is giving away a signed hardcover copy to one lucky commenter, but if you don't want to bother with luck of the draw consider ordering a copy for yourself or the middle grade reader in your life. The paperback version just came out this month!
Hi Michael! I’m so excited to have you on the blog today. Can you start things off by telling us a little about yourself?
I grew up near Cleveland, Ohio where I fell in love with stories and the movies. After college I moved to Los Angeles where I worked in film in TV for a number of years. I got married and decided we wanted our kids to grow up near their cousins and grandparents so we moved back to Ohio where I live now. For the last few years I’ve been a writer, stay-at-home-dad and a screenwriting professor.
BORN TO FLY won the Delecorte Yearling Contest for a First Middle Grade Novel in 2007. Can you tell us about the novel and what it was like to win the competition?
Born to Fly is the story of two outcast kids-- a tomboy who wants to be a fighter pilot, and a Japanese-American boy-- who stumble upon a deadly spy plot that could change the course of World War II. Winning the contest was a total surprise. I was working in a cubicle proofreading thousands of pages of medical litigation records when I got a call from a strange area code. I went outside to take the call and it was Stephanie Elliot from Delacorte telling me that Born to Fly had won the Yearling Prize. It was one of the best days of my life as a writer.
I can only imagine! I’m rather picky about middle grade and absolutely adored your book. I know you got the idea for BORN TO FLY at a WWII airshow after overhearing a boy tell his little sister girls can’t be fighter pilots, but how did it develop from there? What was the book’s evolution?
I wanted to write an adventure story with a girl action hero. The story was born of two incidents: The first was the part you mention about the heartbroken little girl at the airshow. A few years after that I was teaching junior high English and a 6th grade girl asked me to recommend an adventure story where the girl gets to save the day. I couldn’t think of one. There were plenty of books with boy action heroes and there were plenty of stories where girls were the main character, but if there was ever action required or physical heroics, the girls mostly seemed to be witnessing the action rather than steering it and driving it. So from those two flashpoints, I imagined a character with an impossible dream, a little girl who wanted to be a fighter pilot and I set out to write a story and a situation in which I could make her dream come true.
All I knew about the novel going in is what’s on the back cover copy, which is fantastic, but I didn’t realize it was going to be so FUN and suspenseful. It truly is an action-adventure story, and I was so surprised and thrilled with the ending. It's intense! Did you find yourself holding back when you first wrote the story or was Bird and Kenji’s adventure set from draft one?
When I first started, it was definitely a little smaller in scope. I think the climax was a lot shorter and not nearly as tense and deadly. I don’t know if I was holding back as much as I didn’t realize how much Bird was capable of. She surprised me.
Bird is a feisty, surprising character. I felt you really nailed her voice. How did you form her character? Did you draw inspiration from other historical MG novels or research?
I always liked Ramona Quimby and Scout Finch. I was probably thinking a little about them when I first started to create Bird’s character.
You know, that comes through a bit. When I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking how timeless the story is. It has a lot to offer young readers, for many years to come. What do you hope your young fans take away from the tale?
One of the things I like about Bird is that she’s not perfect. She makes mistakes. She’s not this incredibly enlightened, pure, unprejudiced mind in a world where all the other kids and grownups are close-minded, sexist or bigoted. When Kenji comes to town Bird treats him as badly as everyone else does. BUT she is strong enough and smart enough to question herself and her attitudes and opinions about Kenji, about her Mom, about the town bully, etc.
Getting back to business side of things, what did your journey from aspiring author to published author entail? What were the key milestones along the way?
I started out in film, focusing on screenwriting. From screenwriting I developed a strong sense of plot and how to structure a story dramatically. In many ways I think it’s easier coming to novel writing after screenwriting. Initially I was working on Born to Fly as a screenplay but a writer friend convinced me it should be a novel(and she was right!) . She got me to join SCBWI. I wrote the first draft and was lucky enough to win a Work in Progress grant from SCBWI which gave me some confidence. I queried some agents and editors but no one loved it enough to take a chance on it. I kept working on the book and in a workshop, one teacher made a suggestion about changing the verb tense. Though it’s set in 1941, I had originally written the novel in the present tense to make the first person narration seem like it’s happening now and to create suspense for the ending. But my teacher felt past tense would make it cleaner and easier for Bird to have some observations beyond her years. I don’t know if that was the difference or not, but I entered that draft in the Delacorte contest and that’s the draft that won.
Everyone’s putting a lot of importance on self-promotion these days. What is your stance? How has the marketing and promotion side of publication been for you so far?
That’s the part I’m probably least comfortable with. I’ve always been rather shy and for many years public speaking was my greatest fear. But, in addition to being a writer, I’d always wanted to be a teacher so at some point I had to get over it. I was a nervous wreck my first year teaching. I lost 20 pounds the first 6 weeks. But I made it through and love it now.
A writer friend who is a fabulous and funny writer and great self-promoter absolutely demanded that I create a website and a blog because she said when your first book comes out you do not want to look back and think, “I didn’t do all I could to make it succeed”. So I created a website and the blog, but I’m not much of a blogger. I just don’t feel comfortable blabbing about myself that much or maybe I don’t have that much to say. I do enjoy reading a lot of writers blogs, but I must say, so many of the blogs seem to me they are written to be enjoyed by other writers and adult readers, not necessarily for children or teenage fans and young readers.
I don’t think you can manufacture good word of mouth, you will always need to write a book that readers remember and want to recommend. But I think there are people for whom the internet really makes a difference in helping them get discovered and develop fans.
I agree, and your website turned out fantastic. Sometimes I think that's mostly all you need for a middle grade audience. At least as far as the Internet goes. Do you have a literary agent? If so, how did you come to work with him/her?
I haven’t had a book agent yet (though I’ve had one for screenwriting for a number of years). When I won the Yearling Prize, the publishing contract was already set and at the time I hadn’t written a new book so there wasn’t much for an agent to do. I recently finished a new book and have begun to query agents, some of which I learned about from your website.
What is your writing process like? How do you stay on task and motivated?
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I am a horrible procrastinator and staying on task is a constant struggle. Other than setting aside a certain time to write every day (advice which I should follow more) I don’t have good advice so I’ll share some from Donna Jo Napoli about trying to juggle parenting and writing. When asked “How did you do all the things you needed to do?” Her answer: "Badly. If the woman across the street makes a beautiful Halloween costume for her kid, good for her. Your kid can wear the sheet again. You don't have to do everything well." I love that answer.
The best advice I have for aspiring authors is to write with confidence. Write with authority. Write like you know what you are talking about. It’s not so important that you ARE an expert at all the things your characters should know (I’ve never been an 11-year-old girl in 1941). You only need to make the reader BELIEVE that you are an expert. Do your research, learn your world, but don’t get lost in it. The most important thing you bring to the table, in fact the only unique thing you bring to the table is that no one else in the world could write the story the way you would write it. So don’t try to write it like someone else.
Write it like you are sitting around a campfire with a circle of kids (imagine them the age your book is targeted towards). Have you ever had to entertain a group of kids or teens? It’s damned hard. Well that’s your audience. How would you start? How would you hook them? What kind of words and phrases would excite them, make them smile and laugh, make them scared and demand that you keep telling the story? Then write it down that way.
From the first sentence the reader can smell fear. They can smell doubt. They can tell if you know what you’re doing. You pick up that book in the library and start the first paragraph and as the reader you want to know, “Can I trust this writer? Will they bore me? Will they preach to me? Will they write down to me? Will they write over my head? Is this the kind of writing that’s supposed to be good for me? Will they leave plot lines dangling and waste time on things that don’t interest me or help the story in any way?” The reader wants to know they are in good hands, that you are a storyteller who knows what you are doing and you are going to take them on a journey that will move them and involve them and surprise them and in the end, satisfy them. When you read a writer you love, when you read the first page of Dickens or Ray Bradbury or Judy Blume, it sounds so natural and effortless that you relax and don’t worry about whether this is going to suck or end up being a let down or a waste of your time.
Never write with hope. Don’t hope they are going to like it. Write with confidence.
That's some of the best advice I've heard in a long time! Thank you. Can you divulge anything about your current work-in-progress?
I recently finished a new novel which my editor has. It’s about the 14-year-old son of a circus daredevil. When his father dies in a fire while saving a little girl, the boy vows to never do anything heroic. Then, through a bit of magic, a black-and-white movie cowboy comes to life off the screen and he shows the boy how to stand up for himself, win the girl and find his inner hero. In the process the two of them unravel the decades-old murder of the actor who played the cowboy onscreen. I call it MALCOLM DEVLIN and the SHADOW OF A HERO. And I just started a kind of madcap YA romance/adventure about a runaway princess and a teenage paparazzo.
Wow. Both sound fantastic. I would definitely read Malcom's story and would love to see you publish a YA one day. Where can readers stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest on you and your books?
Finally, what’s one interview question you haven’t been asked and wish you would be? And please, answer it!
Question: Since you share a last name, would you be willing to accept the use of a Ferrari sportscar (perhaps the 360 Spider) to drive around for promotional purposes?
Yes. Yes, I would.
Ha! Good use of question. Thank you again, Michael, for the honor of interviewing you.
Readers, don't forget to leave a comment (with your e-mail address if it's hard to find) for a chance to win BORN TO FLY. The giveaway is open until March 31th. Open internationally. I'll announce the winner next Friday, April 1st. Good luck!