Sweet Sixteener Jennifer Maschari recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Dan Gemeinhart about his debut MG adventure novel, THE HONEST TRUTH (January 27, 2015 from Scholastic Press).
Dan Gemeinhart lives in a small town smack dab in the middle of Washington state with his wife and three young daughters. He’s lucky and grateful to be a teacher-librarian in an elementary school, where he gets to share awesome books with awesome kids. He loves camping, cooking and traveling. He also plays guitar (badly) and reads (constantly). His house is always a mess. He is really pretty darn happy.
In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day. But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from. So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier–even if it’s the last thing he ever does. THE HONEST TRUTH is a rare and extraordinary novel about big questions, small moments, and the incredible journey of the human spirit.
Jennifer: How did you come up with the idea for your novel? What was your inspiration? (the introductory letter you wrote to early readers was so powerful)
Dan: THE HONEST TRUTH was written in honor of a friend of mine (my sister’s fiance, actually). Like the story’s protagonist, his name was Mark. He was a wonderful guy – warm, generous, full of fun. He worked at a bookstore and traveled all over the world climbing mountains. And like the Mark in the story, he battled cancer. Right up until the end. This story is not about Mark – he was an adult, of course, and the story is about a 12-year-old boy – but I took the name, and the cancer, and the mountain climbing, and tried to weave those elements into an adventure story that I hope Mark would have liked. I did not want it to be a “cancer book,” but truly an adventure book. One that’s about life and living and friendship and loyalty, which is what I think about when I think about the real Mark.
Jennifer: How does being a teacher-librarian inform your writing process?
Dan: Oh, it influences me so much, in so many ways! As a K-5 teacher-librarian, I get to work with kids and books every day. I see what they pick up, what they put down, what grabs their attention, and what holds it. I really wanted to write a book that was accessible and fast-paced to get reluctant readers hooked, but one that had enough emotional and thematic heft to resonate with those kids that really connect deeply with books. Also, I think working in a school with a very high ELL (English Language Learner) population really influenced me to develop a direct, kind of stripped-down writing style.
Jennifer: What was the most difficult part of the writing process for you? What did your revision process look like for this book?
Dan: Oh, man. This one was a doozy. It did not come easy. I wrote about eight chapters (50 or so pages), didn’t feel like I was getting it right, so I deleted it all and started from scratch. Then again got about 50 pages in and just was not finding the flow or voice or feel – and threw it all away again! Finally, though, I found Mark’s voice, I dropped into the rhythm, found a home in the story – and I was off. I still did some pretty significant changes later on – the entire ending is dramatically different than the original – but for the most part, once I got into the flow I was able to ride it straight through. So the hardest part was not deciding what the story was – that has remained pretty consistent from the moment it first came to me – but in finding how to tell the story.
Jennifer: What kind of kid/reader/adult do you hope finds your book?
Dan: Ha! More than a year into this crazy adventure and I’m still just thrilled to have any reader at all! I still do quite a bit of pinching myself – and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I feel so blessed to have broken through, to be able to see my book actually in the world. It is such a dream come true. Honestly, though, I’m not too picky about readers. Whether they’re just in it for the adventure story, or connect more with the human/emotional stuff, I don’t care – as long as they enjoy it, I’m over the moon to have people out there actually reading my story. It’s a real privilege and honor.
Lightning Round Questions:
Favorite middle grade character?
Dan: Oh, man, so many! One of my recent favorites is Moses LoBeau from THREE TIMES LUCKY. Dwight from ORIGAMI YODA is great, too. And Delly from TRUE (…SORT OF) is unforgettable. And, even though she’s definitely too young to be considered middle grade, Junie B. Jones is just one of my all-time favorite people. I’ve read all those books with my daughters and she’s so alive she just jumps right off the page (and sticks her tongue out at you).
Three books everyone should read?
Dan: THE BOOK THIEF. So amazing, that one. Then…THE GIVER. Finally: THE GIVING TREE. Can I also add CHARLOTTE’S WEB, CATCH-22, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD? Pretty please?
Morning, afternoon, night time or anytime writer?
Well, I write when I can. But in my heart I’m a night time writer for sure. If I didn’t have to get up in the morning I’d be happiest writing from 9pm to 3am. But…if 5-7 a.m. is the only time you have to write, then that’s when you write.
Currently petless! I am an animal lover, though, and I can’t wait to have a dog again. We were so torn up by our last couple dogs passing that we decided to take a couple of years off. We do have an exchange student living with us, though…does that count?
Best opening line of a book?
It’s a tie: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” from CHARLOTTE’S WEB, and this gem from V.S. Naipul’s A BEND IN THE RIVER: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Song that makes you think of your book?
Hmmm. I’m a big-time music lover. If I had to pick one (a rule I haven’t followed yet, I know), I’d go with RISE TO ME by the Decemberists. But I’d also slip in Eddie Vedder’s RISE and I’d have to mention THE HONEST TRUTH by Typhoon (it has nothing to do with the book but it shares the title and it’s a great song).
About the Interviewer:
Jennifer Maschari writes books about kids who do brave things. When she’s not writing, she works as a math and language arts tutor. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two bulldogs who only sometimes listen to her. In her debut MG novel, THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF CHARLIE PRICE, a young boy struggling in the wake of his mother’s death follows his sister into a magical world identical to their own with one key difference – Mom is alive. But this idealized other world holds terrifying secrets, and he’ll have to defeat monsters both real and imagined or risk losing himself, his sister, and the true memory of his mother forever.