Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Interview with Joy Givens, Summer 2017 Flash Fiction Contest Runner Up
Joy resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her fantastic husband, their two remarkable sons, and an impossibly lovable dog. In addition to her writing, Joy is the owner and lead tutor of Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, a company serving the greater Pittsburgh area. She also enjoys singing and listening to most genres of music, cooking for family and friends, and curling up with a good book and good coffee. Please catch up with Joy on social media!
Read Joy's heartfelt story about family dynamics many of us can relate to and then return to learn more about how Joy'w writing habits and some of her favorite children's/young adult authors!
----------Interview by Renee Roberson
WOW: Welcome, Joy! We would love to hear the inspiration behind your story, "Million-Dollar Burrito." And thank you for making those of us with slightly dysfunctional families feel much more normal now!
Joy: Well, all stories begin with a kernel of the truth, right? :) The kernel of inspiration for this story came from a similar kind of situation within my own family. In thinking about how we process family "announcements" and relate to the people closest to us, I wanted to explore a fictional situation (fraught with more drama than my own) as a close pair of sisters might handle it. I have been blessed with many wonderful sisterly relationships (sisters, stepsisters, a sister-in-law, and close friends who often feel like sisters), and I've definitely seen those relationships emerging more in my own work lately. And whenever and however families are expanded, no matter the happy reason, there are also many angles of human drama to explore as a result! That's what I was going for with "Million-Dollar Burrito," and I hope I found the middle ground between humor and heartstrings in a relatable way.
WOW: I'd say you most certainly did. Looking at your bio, you mostly write for young adult readers, and have recently branched out into picture books. Can you give us an overview of a few of the works of fiction you've published in the past few years?
Joy: My most recently published work is "The Shot Shared Round the World," a short story selected for inclusion in the "Beach Life" anthology from Cat & Mouse Press (Nov 2017). In that story, a girl named Leigh discovers on the way to a big family vacation that a photo of her at a concert she sneaked out to attend has gone viral! Leigh and her net-savvy cousins try to keep her parents from finding out, and in the process their family finds new ways to bridge the generation gap. It was a big story to tell in a short format, but I was pleased with how it turned out. My previously published work also includes several self-pub credits: Ugly Stick, a young adult urban fantasy novel that tells the story of a mother-daughter curse; April's Roots, a short story collection that serves as a serial "prequel" to Ugly Stick; and The New SAT Handbook, a guide that I co-wrote with Andrew Cole and released in 2016. I'm currently working on several projects that all revolve around fairy tale and folktale retellings, including a YA spin on Rapunzel that incorporates a Snow White revamp (as the villain!) and picture book texts that update folktales like "The Gingerbread Man" and "Stone Soup" in contemporary, fem-STEM settings. I love taking something classic and widely recognized and turning it into something new!
WOW: The New SAT Handbook piqued my interest because I remember how much I struggled with the test and worry for my kids who will have to take it in the few years. With so many "test prep" guides out there, how did you and your co-author work to present the material in a much more user-friendly format?
Joy: That's a great question! I had been teaching and tutoring for several years when the College Board announced the "new" SAT that would be implemented in Spring 2016. Andrew Cole and I banded together to develop a sort of workbook that we could use with our own students, and the idea grew from there. We definitely came at the Handbook with the perspective of tutors who have seen what works (and doesn't) with a range of students. The first thing we considered was brevity, not only because we didn't have an army of interns to create pages of filler, but also because so much of the content in the big test prep guides is just that: filler. As a tutor, I've walked into first lessons with SAT students and seen their faces fall when they see the three-inch-thick books I've brought. In my experience, it's intimidating and ultimately counterproductive to give students a thousand bloated pages of test prep when the essentials can be condensed into a "little" book! My frame of reference for this is the classic writing guide The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which was originally developed by Will Strunk as his "little book" on composition for his college students (one of whom was E.B. White). It's concise, clear, and easy to navigate, with even a few pops of dry wit as a bonus. We tried to follow that path with our book... though we went with an intentionally kitschy cartoon pencil and pop culture references in lieu of dry wit. The second thing we considered was readability: making sure a student could use it alone or with a tutor. We included a full topical index at the back and a grammar glossary for that purpose, as well as a brick-by-brick math content review and a slew of grammar modules. It's very much a workbook approach, which leads to the third consideration for The New SAT Handbook: applicability. We didn't want to make a "test tips and tricks" book that teaches the magic formula to the SAT. We wanted to make a book that provides content that will be valuable to high school students long after test day. Things like reading comprehension, grammar and composition, and fundamentals of math sometimes get overlooked in the rush to "beat" the test. Focusing on those valuable skills is the core of how I teach and tutor, so it was only natural to make that the core of the book as well.
WOW: I love it. I will definitely check this out for my daughter in the next few years. As the owner and lead tutor at an academic preparatory company, how do you balance a full work schedule (and motherhood!) with your writing projects?
Joy: I'm a fairly busy person, and I'd like to say that "balance" is my middle name, but it's not. It's Eilene. Which actually makes for a terrific pun, because it sounds very unbalanced! But honestly, that's often how I feel in my day-to-day: like I'm leaning too far towards one thing and falling short on something else. A common feeling among women in our current society for sure! I wish I could say that there's some magic equation I've found to balance my writing life with my day job and motherhood, but there's just NOT. There are weeks when I crank out chapters and short stories, and then there are weeks when I just can't find the time and head-space to put together even a paragraph because one of my kids has the stomach flu or I have a particularly full work schedule. I don't have a "method," though I certainly admire those who do. I just make time for writing whenever I can. I bring a notepad or my laptop with me anytime I think I might be able to get some words in. I plot out loud to myself in the car when I'm driving to work. And given the choice between writing and sleep at 11pm, I usually choose writing; I'm a born night owl. That being said, I have gotten (slightly) better in recent months about making time for decompressing as well. I worked through a lot of anxiety after becoming a mother for the first time, so I tried to be proactive about giving myself some space when our second little angel arrived in 2016. Yoga, baking, TV competition shows, gardening, and arts and crafts are all my de-stressing friends when I need a recharge.
There's no key to how I "balance" my life. I guess I've just made a measure of peace with the fact that I'm perennially unbalanced and found happiness within that.
WOW: I hear you loud and clear on that! Who are some of your favorite children's authors and what are a few books you'd recommend for middle-grade and young adult readers?
Joy: This is my favorite question! I love talking about what I'm reading, because from childhood I was a reader first and a writer second. Here are my favorite reads of 2017:
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas (or anything by Firoozeh Dumas; she's incredible and hilarious and heartwarming.)
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor (This story was utterly original, and the conclusion's emotional pay-off brought tears to my eyes.)
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (This story made me ugly-cry after I finished it. For several hours. Seriously.)
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (He's just brilliant; I previously never gave much thought to novels in verse, and he completely converted me!)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (This book should be required reading in every high school in America. It's gripping and heartbreaking and raw and real, and you should set aside a day to read it and be changed by it.)
The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters (This book is fascinating, feminist, dark but not too dark, and so enjoyable to read!)
My perennial favorite authors are Madeleine L'Engle, JK Rowling, Mark Dunn, Malcolm Gladwell, Charles Dickens, L.M. Montgomery, Lois Lowry, Gail Carson Levine, and Linda Sue Park.
I have also been fortunate to befriend a ton of talented writers through organizations and networking! Some of my top personal-friend recommendations for middle grade and YA are Stephanie Keyes, Joshua David Bellin, Wende Dikec, Laura Lee Anderson, and Dee Romito.
WOW: Looks like I have some new books to check out and recommend to my kids. Thank you again and you are an inspiration to all the women out there making it happen every day, one day at a time.