Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Second Fiddle": A First-Rate Middle Grade Novel

Calling all fans of Heart of a Shepherd: Rosanne Parry made me cry...again! The first time was when she depicted the loving relationship between a ten-year old boy and his rancher grandfather near Oregon's Strawberry Mountains. This time, she did it when a trio of girls bond with themselves and others while playing ensemble in Berlin and Paris. (For the record, she also made me laugh and gasp and sigh.)

Second Fiddle (Random House, March 22, 2011) follows the adventures of eighth grader Jody and her two best friends who live on an army base in Berlin in 1990, just after the Wall has fallen. Jody and her family will soon be returning to civilian life in the U.S. and she dreads the thought of being uprooted and never seeing Giselle and Vivian again.  Before Jody moves, the three enter an ensemble contest in Paris as a string trio. Before their trip, they witness the attempted murder of a Soviet soldier,  rescue him and decide to help him escape to Paris.

Rosanne has artfully conjured a unique and engaging coming-of-age tale of an expat kid searching to find her way in the world. Lucky for us, Rosanne has stopped by to answer questions pertaining to political intrigue, resourcefulness, and the connecting power of music. 

AB: If you look in a school library for books discussing the cold war, you’ll be lucky to come up with anything. Why did you take on this mantle? Why did you set this story right after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

RP: Practical reasons first. When I was a kid I loved those stories where kids went off on their own and had adventures. Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan, From the Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg,  and Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson all had kids doing dangerous and thrilling things all on their own. Here’s the problem. You can’t have an adventure if you have a cell phone. This is why my own children have a cell phone. If something goes wrong, they can call me or google the answer. Wonderfully comforting to me as a mother—DEATH to the tension in a story. Cell phones did not exist in 1990. So convenient!

Up until recently there has been a hole in the canon of historical fiction around the cold war era. However in the past 18 months or so, several notable titles have been published and there is a list of them here on my website.   

I am particularly excited to see these titles because they have much to say about the fear a repressive system engenders, what makes a government fall, and how a new system emerges. Given recent developments in North Africa, this topic is particularly timely.

From an artistic standpoint, the chaos and uncertainty of the months right around the fall of the Berlin Wall nicely mirror the upheaval my main character, Jody, faces as she leaves her friends behind forever when her family leaves the military for civilian life in the states.

AB: Were there any challenges to writing historical fiction about the end of the Cold War in the '90's?

Historical fiction is always a challenge because even though I lived in Germany in 1990 and learned lots of the information I used in the story from German newspaper articles, or from conversations with my neighbors, my publisher insists on documentation for everything. Fortunately it did not all have to be in English, but having lived an experience is not enough. You really have to have back up for everything—the price of a train ticket, the train schedule, the time it takes to walk from Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandenburg Gate. I mentioned the names many people who helped me with my research and some of the process on my website

If you are a writer working in historical or even realistic fiction, you should keep detailed records of your sources because if you are going to be traditionally published, you’ll need to provide that information. My own source list for Second Fiddle had more than 60 references on it. They included books, maps, websites, recorded music, sheet music, magazine and newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and documentary films.

 AB: The theme that music can unite people regardless of language or background is beautifully interwoven into your tale. What led you to write a story about a girl in an orchestral ensemble?

RP: I played the violin when I was a kid and I never much cared for private lessons, but I loved playing in my school orchestra. I think joining the band or choir or orchestra or school play is one of the marvelously empowering experiences of middle school—an era not generally marked by either marvel or personal power. In these tough budget years I hope communities remember that music gives kids a voice and a community they would not find on their own.

One of the joys of working on this piece is that my editor, Jim Thomas, and my agent, Stephen Fraser, are both musicians and have been since they were boys, so they have an abiding appreciation for the power of making music with your friends. Jim was in the drum line in high school and when he moved to NY he started a band with some of his friends at Random House. Here’s a link to Jim’s band, Mr McGregor.
AB: Jody, your main character, struggles with her perceptions of being 'second fiddle' in her family, as well as with her best friends Giselle and Vivian.  In 'Second Fiddle' you also explore the theme of feeling in the background, like you are considered after others. Personally, it struck a chord with me, as I imagine it will with many readers. Can you tell me what led you to write about this particular feeling in pre-adolescence?

RP: When I was a girl I was in a children’s choir and stood next to a girl named Janet Chvatal, who lived down the street. Next to her I sounded like a squawkin’ chicken! She never said an unkind thing about my voice, but for ages I thought I couldn’t sing.

I found Janet again while I was living in Germany—this was pre-facebook; our meeting was due to the machinations of our mothers. I learned that Janet had come to Europe to study with a famous coloratura soprano, could sing brilliantly in 5 languages and was now singing the lead in The Phantom of the Opera in one of the finest opera houses in Vienna. She has since recorded many albums and you can hear an example of her amazing voice here.

We went to visit her in Vienna, and she got us seats in the loge (a spot normally reserved for reviewers and dignitaries). It was a magical night, and I realized that my childhood view of both of us had been completely wrong. Janet is so much more talented than I had guessed, and I have a perfectly adequate and occasionally lovely singing voice—but I’m not a professional singer and I’d never want to be one.

One aspect of “coming-of-age” is learning to see your talents for what they are and choosing which talents you want to spend a lifetime developing. In some ways that coming-of-age lasts forever. I could despair of ever writing as well as Patricia Reilly Giff or Katherine Patterson, or I could realize that I have my own themes to develop and that if I work very hard I can write something perfectly adequate and occasionally lovely.
AB: You write about a Ukranian soldier who hates what Soviet communism has done to his family, his country, and himself. But then the girls meet an American who runs a bookshop in Paris as a decidedly socialist commune. Did you intentionally decide to contrast these two characters and their perceptions of communism?

The one character I didn't invent is George Whitman, the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris. George Whitman was too good a character to pass up. There is a fabulous video of George Whitman in his 80s giving himself a haircut by setting his hair on fire. Seriously! Could. Not. Make that up. He’s a man with a vision of how the art of reading and writing could be nurtured in the world and, like many visionaries, is a tad eccentric. 

I’m actually not very interested in making a commentary on Communism or Socialism. There’s plenty of information out there on both systems. I’m sure my readers are capable of making up their own minds. In fact I didn’t realize George Whitman was a socialist when I first decided to use the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop as a location in the story. I read a really interesting book about his life and the bookstore called Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer. Once I understood his motivations for running the shop the way he did, it seemed natural for him to speak to the girls from his own point of view. I didn’t want him to be the “crazy American” living in Paris. There is more to him than quirkiness, and he deserves a fuller characterization, particularly since Mr. Whitman is still living in the rooms above Shakespeare and Company and his daughter is now running the store

 AB: When does Second Fiddle hit the shelves?/ an e-book near you?

RP: Second Fiddle will be out March 22nd. It is also available in e-book and audio book and downloadable audio. I recorded the author note for the audio edition, and boy, was that a lot harder than you’d think! It took me an hour and a half to read 5 pages. I have heaps of respect now for my audio artist Bri Knickerbocker who read the other 224 pages!
Rosanne Parry

AB: Thanks for your time, Rosanne. Before we say goodbye, tell me: what's up next for you?

RP: I have a very busy spring and I am hugely grateful to the bookstores that have generously agreed to host Second Fiddle events. Lots of these events involve kid musicians as well as the traditional reading. Here’s a list of where I’ll be this spring and into summer. I’ve still got a few plans in the works, so please stop by my website if you don’t see a book event in your area.
If you are a writer, follow the links to the conferences. They all have open registration. I’ll be teaching Character and the 7 Deadly Sins, Collaborative Marketing, and What Makes it a Children’s Book this spring and summer. 

April 8 , 4:30 pm: Young Writers Workshop Powell’s, Beaverton, OR

April 9 , 2:00 pm: A Children’s Place Bookstore, Portland, OR - with Liz Rusch (FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC, Random House, 2011) and musicians from Metro Youth Symphony.

April 12, 4:30 pm: Third Street Books, McMinnville, OR

April 15-17: Western WA SCBWI Conference, Redmond, WA

May 6: Northwest Fiddle Festival, Waucoma Books, Hood River, OR

May 14, 1:30-4:30pm: For the Love of Music & Books, Ethos Music ,Portland, OR, with Liz Rusch, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Trio con Brio, and the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir.

May 13, 4:30pm: Young Writers Workshop, Powell’s, Portland, OR

May 20-21: Paulina Springs Bookstore, Redmond & Bend, OR

July 9-17: Summer Fishtrap Writers Workshop, Joseph, OR

Aug 7-9:  Willamette Writers Conference, Portland, OR

Sep 8: Eugene Willamette Writers, Eugene, OR