Little Blisters Rubbing Stories into Life: An Interview with Helen Hemphill
Lesesne, Teri S., Teacher Librarian
IN EARLY SPRING 2006, FELLOW TEXAN AND AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE KATHI APPELT INTRODUCED ME TO A NEW AUTHOR ONE OF HER FORMER STUDENTS IN THE VERMONT COLLEGE PROGRAM--HELEN HEMPHILL. HELEN AND I HAD THE CHANCE TO SIT DOWN AND TALK ABOUT HER DEBUT NOVEL, LONG GONE DADDY, AT THE TEXAS LIBRARY ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE. JUST AS IT RESONATES IN HER WRITING, HELEN'S VOICE IS WONDERFUL, WARM, ONE THAT INVITES READERS INTO THE WORLD OF HARLAN Q. STANK, A YOUNG MAN STRUGGLING WITH CONFLICTING EMOTIONS ABOUT HIS FAMILY, HIS LIFE, AND HIS FUTURE. AS THE SCHOOL YEAR BEGINS, TAKE SOME TIME TO LISTEN TO THIS REMARKABLE NEW VOICE IN YA LITERATURE--FIND TIME TO READ LONG GONE DADDY.
TL: Patty Campbell refers to the creative process as being akin to the way an oyster produces a pearl. A tiny grain of sand begins to irritate until the oyster produces layers of protective material, which results in the beautiful pearl. What is the tiny grain of sand for you? Is it the voice of a character, a problem, some time or place?
HH: Maybe it is the influence of my mother's Appalachian upbringing, my own Texas roots, or just the natural insecurity of moving around a lot as a child, but I find setting is usually that little blister that rubs a story into being. Place has a pretty deep hold in my psyche, and it is most often the point around which ideas about character identity and plot seem to crystallize. In Long Gone Daddy, Bean's Creek is modeled after Whitewright, Texas, just north of Dallas. Harlan could not have grown up anywhere else. Ultimately, the destination of the story's road trip had to be Las Vegas, because it offered the perfect juxtaposition to Paps's point of view.
TL: Writing from the perspective of an adolescent boy must pose some problems. How do you go about capturing the voice of Harlan Q., not to mention his daddy, Harlan P., and some of the others who populate your novel?
HH: I would love to say I came by the perspective in an organic way, but the reality is that I worked at it intentionally. I have some direct experience, with two sons and a husband, but I did a lot of reading--psychology books on male adolescence, like Dan Kindlon's Raising Cain and William Pollack's Real Boys. A friend gave me John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, which I found useful in the context of the story. I reread Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye and then read every book I could with a male protagonist. Reading Graham Salisbury's books was a terrific help. I also found a web site listed in Ben Yogoda's book The Sound on the Page. It is called the Gender Genie and uses an algorithm to determine the gender of a text's author, with about 80% accuracy. Because the book was written in first-person point of view, I would try and fool the program. After about half of the manuscript was written, I was fooling the program a lot, so I felt pretty safe.
TL: What sort of reactions and responses have you received from your readers?
HH: Many times, readers ask me if I intend to do a sequel to Long Gone Daddy. I had not considered it initially, but there may be a parallel story brewing in the back of my mind. Warrior is a popular guy, so he might show up somewhere along the way, although I do not have any specific timing as to when.
I also get asked by adults who have not yet read the book if it is really okay for middle school readers. There is a fair amount of YA fiction now that is more adult than young adult, so I tell them that I am on the lower end of YA. I hope the book is compelling and interesting but still accessible to a younger teen.
TL: Describe what a perfect writing day would be for you and then tell us what the reality of your writing schedule is on a daily basis. …