Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Five Questions for Author Cindy Baldwin

From Boswellian Jenny Chou:

I’m so happy to chat with middle-grade author Cindy Baldwin about her new book, Beginners Welcome. Cindy’s previous book, Where the Watermelons Grow, appeared on my bookselling radar when it came out in 2018 and received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and School Library Journal - which also gave a starred review to Beginners Welcome! For those of us in the book world, that’s kind of like a baseball player hitting five home runs in the World Series. Read my review of Where the Watermelons Grow and find out why I suggest sipping an ice-cold lemonade while reading Cindy’s books right HERE.

JENNY: Can you tell readers about the challenges Annie Lee is facing in Beginners Welcome? And why did her story need to be told?

CINDY: A few months before Beginners Welcome opens, Annie Lee’s beloved daddy has died unexpectedly, leaving her and her mama alone. Annie Lee’s Daddy was always the “glue” that held their family together, and she and Mama are struggling to connect with each other without him there. Because of the grief she feels over her daddy, as well as the fact that in the wake of his death she drifted away from her two best friends, Annie Lee has decided that maybe she will become invisible, so that others can’t see her and connect with her - and potentially hurt her again.

Although I luckily still have both of my parents, I wanted to tell Annie Lee’s story because grief and the fear of further loss were big parts of my adolescent years. I was born with a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis, and I was thirteen when I learned that CF was life-shortening and that I might not live to middle age. That was a big thing to grapple with as a young teen! I spent years processing that understanding, and one of the central questions always in my mind was: if I knew there was this possibility that my illness was going to become severe enough to take a lot of things from me, was it worth creating deep and meaningful relationships, or was that just opening myself up for potential loss later on? That’s a struggle that I really wanted to explore through Annie Lee’s story. Although the circumstances for each of us are different, I think the balance between connection and loss is something we all have to navigate at some point.

JENNY: I know you’re a Harry Potter fan because Annie Lee talks about hiding from the world as if she’s wearing an invisibility cloak. So let’s find out the one bit information readers really want to know: Is Annie Lee a Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw? What about you? Why?

CINDY: Hmm, that’s a good question. My original thought was Hufflepuff, because I think Annie Lee fits a lot of the traditional Hufflepuff profile. But after pondering it more deeply, I actually think she’d be Gryffindor. Although she’s pretty shy and anxious, bravery is very important to her, and throughout Beginners Welcome she works to do some pretty courageous things. So in reality, I think she’s a Gryffindor in the mold of Neville Longbottom! As for me, I’m definitely a classic Gryffindor. I always forget to look before I leap (sometimes with disastrous consequences - ask me about my long history of foolhardy furniture-painting projects sometime!), I’m kind of hotheaded, and if somebody wrongs a person I love I will not hesitate to take them down. Often when I, um, shouldn’t.

JENNY: You live in Portland, Oregon, with your husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries, but your books are set in North Carolina. Your writing in Where the Watermelons Grow is so evocative of summer, and in Beginners Welcome readers feel the “sizzling August heat” right along with Annie Lee. What makes the South a perfect setting for your books?

CINDY: I grew up in North Carolina - actually, in Durham, just like Annie Lee! (I often played Christmas concerts in Brightleaf Square with my violin teacher’s other students.) I ended up moving away from NC as an adult, which has always been a source of sadness for me. In many ways, North Carolina will always feel like the home of my heart. I love the culture of the South, the lightning bugs, the heat, even the humidity, which feels like a warm hug! Writing books set in North Carolina is a way to vicariously revisit the places I love. And I think the South is such a rich, evocative place to set a book, as evidenced by the long tradition of beautiful Southern fiction!

JENNY: At the start of Beginners Welcome, Annie Lee has moved from a house to a small apartment, and she’s left her two best friends behind. One of the parts I absolutely love about the book are all her unexpected new friendships. Ray, Mitch, and Queenie are such richly developed characters. Reading your books is such a delightful experience because your characters truly come from your heart. Are any of them based on people you knew growing up? And what’s the secret to making characters come alive on the page?

CINDY: I’ve come to realize in the last few years that secondary characters are a big writing weakness for me. I’m not very good at things like character bibles, and I often put secondary characters into my book pretty quickly without developing them a ton. (I just have to get to know them through writing, I guess!) So inevitably, I end up focusing a lot on fleshing out secondary characters as I revise, which I think helps them really jump off the page. Secondary characters are so important to my books, which have a strong focus on community and found family. I wouldn’t say that any of them are specifically based on people I knew, but many of them are composites of characteristics I appreciated in people I have known. For instance, I was lucky as a teen to have several patient and loving mentors, who nurtured me in both music and writing. That theme of adult mentorship and special relationships with non-parent adults has come through in both my books.

JENNY: Finally, a bit of imagining - your wildest dreams have come true, and you are now an Indie bookseller. A customer is looking for books for middle grade readers. What titles do you suggest?

CINDY: Some of my favorite recent releases include What Stars Are Made Of by Sarah Allen; From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks; When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, and Coo by Kaela Noel!

Beginners Welcome is a Boswell Best selection for April, and Where the Watermelons Grow is now out in paper. Cindy, thank you! - Jenny Chou, Boswell Book Company.

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