Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Jenny Has Five Questions for Liza Wiemer

 Today is just a week away from the release of Milwaukee YA author's latest novel (and just a week away from her virtual release celebration Tuesday, 8/25, at 7 pm- register right here!) so Jenny has invited Wiemer to the Boswellians blog for a chat. From Jenny:

I’m so excited to welcome Liza Wiemer to the Boswellians today! Liza is a Milwaukee writer, a dear friend of Boswell, and the author of one previous novel for teens, Hello?, and several works of non-fiction. Her new novel, The Assignment, centers on social justice. School Library Journal called it, “An important look at a critical moment in history through a modern lens showcasing the power of student activism.” My own take-away from this powerful book is that yes, the story is disturbing, but Liza Wiemer’s heartfelt writing fills this novel with love and ultimately with hope. Don't miss Liza and I chatting over Zoom as we celebrate her book launch. Register above.

JENNY CHOU: Welcome, Liza! I’m honored to have you here on the blog today to tell readers about your new book. The Assignment feels relevant and vital during this summer of 2020 as people across the country are speaking out against injustice. Your two main characters, Logan and her friend Cade, show such admirable courage throughout the novel. Tell us about them, and explain what they face at school and in their community after a teacher assigns a chilling project focusing on Hitler’s Final Solution.

LIZA WIEMER: I love Boswell Book Company! Thank you so much for having me. Cade and Logan are high school seniors with very different goals. Cade plans to stay in Riviere, NY (a fictitious town) to help run his family’s inn and attend a local college. Logan is heading off to Georgetown. They’re best friends and are supportive of one another. (Spoiler alert: light romance) Cade takes History of World Governments so that the two of them will have one class together. Mr. Bartley, their beloved teacher, often gives out-of-the-box, creative assignments. Other than Cade and Logan, no one questions him about the assignment to recreate the Wannsee Conference. What’s wrong with pretending to be Nazis and coming up with reasons to murder Europe’s 11,000,000 Jews? After all, it’s history.

The issue is not learning about it. The issue is debating whether sterilization, ghettos, and work camps is a better idea than straight out extermination. In other words, this was a debate on whether to enslave the Jewish people and work them to death or kill them immediately. Cade andLogan refused to do this assignment on moral grounds. They will not defend the indefensible. When two students give the Nazi salute in class, it solidifies Cade and Logan’s decision to do everything they can to end to the debate. But they face ridicule from classmates, a principal who will only accommodate them on his terms. Unfortunately, things spiral out of control when a reporter interviews Cade and Logan about the assignment.

Hopefully, readers will put themselves in this novel, thinking about what they would do in similar situations. Would you have the courage to speak up? You’ll just have to read the novel to decide what you would do.

JC: I love the story of how this novel came to be. Can you talk a bit about that? And how challenging was it to keep the heart of the story but fictionalize the people involved?

LW: Great questions. Without a doubt, the experiences that led me to writing this novel are extraordinary.

On April 4, 2017, I was visiting Oswego, New York, for a book signing at River’s End Bookstore for my debut young adult novel, Hello?. Before the event, I stopped at a local grocery store and was unable to exit my car because of a downpour. To pass the time, I went on Facebook. That’s when I saw the horrifying headline “Homework? NY Students Debate Exterminating Jews.” The first line announced that this took place in Oswego. I was shocked. I remember wondering how I ended up in a town where people saw no problem with an assignment asking students to advocate for the Holocaust.

I was in awe of the two teens who spoke out against the assignment, Jordan April and Archer Shurtliff, and really wanted to say thank you and let them know that their actions were brave and heroic. The problem was that I had no idea how to get in touch with them.

I decided to purchase copies of my novel, include a personal note, and ask the bookstore owner if he would help me send them to the teens. Turns out that the plan was unnecessary. Four steps into the bookstore and there was Jordan! Amazingly, she worked at the bookstore. Later that evening, we had a three-way call with Archer.

Soon after I returned to Milwaukee, I wrote about the experience, which was published as an op-ed on several sites. An author friend then suggested that I write a novel. I knew it was something I had to do. Readers might find it interesting, however, that the night before I met Jordan and Archer, I had decided that I was done with writing. I’d received my sixtieth agent rejection for a manuscript I’d worked on for six years. I saw that rejection, along with one of the worst teaching days of my career, as a sign to do something else with my life. The only way I can explain the series of the incredible events that has led to the publication of this novel is Divine Providence.

About how difficult it was to fictionalize the story...

From the very beginning I made the decision to write a fictitious story, so it wasn’t hard to imagine my own characters. They became very real to me. The novel required a lot of research—reading about similar assignments, researching the Final Solution, the Wannsee Conference, Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. I watched a lot of original footage from World War II, YouTube videos, interviewed students, experts on the Holocaust, survivors, and so much more.

JC: What do you hope readers, and especially teens, take away from The Assignment?

LW: When it comes to speaking up and taking a stand against an injustice, you are not alone. It’s not easy, especially when adults are involved. Sometimes, you have to look for that support. There are many different ways to be an upstander instead of a bystander. I think the vast majority of us can think of instances in our lives where we stayed silent instead of speaking up for ourselves or others. I hope that after you read The Assignment, the experience will stay with you for a long time. I hope that it will be an example to draw strength from, so that when you face an injustice you’ll be able to recall the experiences in this book and find the courage to speak up. Your voice matters. You can and will make a difference. Stay strong!

What foreign rights have been sold, and when will the book be available in other countries?

LW: So far, the novel has sold in Italy, Russia, Poland, and South Korea. Most likely, we won’t see those versions until 2021.

JC: Let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day here at Boswell! Are there any new releases you’d suggest to YA readers? What are you excited about for this fall?

LW: If I had the opportunity to work at Boswell Book Company for a day, I’d love it. I’ve been known to recommend books to shoppers at my favorite Indie!

This is a tough question, because I normally ask each person what they enjoy reading and make recommendations based on their likes. Regardless of this, I would highly recommend Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. They share American history that very few of us know. It’s an important book and should be read by all teens and adults.

And since I’m working, I am certain I’d meet people interested in excellent books for middle graders. Here are two that recently came out that I’d recommend. Turtle Boy by Evan Wolkenstein. It’s an emotional novel dealing with family, friends, turtles, identity, self-esteem, life and death and so much more. Evan grew up in Wisconsin and the novel is set here, so extra bonus. The Dream Weaver by Reina Luz Alegre also kept me turning pages and will have readers thinking about what dreams to hold onto and which ones to let go!

I’m looking forward to Dear Justyce, the sequel of Dear Martin by Nic Stone, which comes out September 29th. (Note from Jenny: Boswell is hosting Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great is Not Okay, in conversation with Nic Stone on Friday, August 28th! Register HERE.) For fantasy lovers, I’ve heard wonderful things about Cast in Firelight by Dana Swift. I’d also love for our YA readers to put American Betiya, by Wisconsinite Anuradha D Rajurkar, on their to-read list. It doesn’t come out until next March, but it will be worth the wait. It’s a book about a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries and the complications of a cross-culture relationship. I was fortunate to read several versions of the manuscript. This book is fantastic!

Thanks to you, Liza, for joining me today! Liza Wiemer’s virtual release party on Tuesday, August 25th at 7 pm is sure to be fun! She’ll be joined by me, asking questions about all things YA and writing The Assignment. Ready to pre-order a copy of The Assignment? Anyone who preorders will receive this decal along with a bookmark, and they can fill out this form for the chance to win 3 Delacorte Press books of their choice for themselves and 5 books for a classroom or library.

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