Saturday, January 31, 2009

How Very Cool Is This? An Interview With Helen Hemphill, the Deadwood Jones Author

Yeeehaaa, partners, Helen Hemphill, the author of that terrific book The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones, has very nicely given us an interview:

Deadwood Jones is a terrific book. Your other books are set in modern times--why did you write about two African-American boys going out west and joining a cattle drive?
I read Nat Love’s autobiography. Nat was born in Davidson County, Tennessee (Nashville) in 1854. After the Civil War, he went west looking for work and adventure. According to Nat, he was the best cowboy ever born. He could out ride and out shoot any man. I loved the bravado of Nat’s voice and wanted to write a character like him. Once I did the research and found out a third of cowboys on the western cattle drives were minorities, I thought the story was one that needed telling.

Your two main characters are thirteen and eleven-year-old boys. Was it hard to get into minds of boys and write about them?

The hardest part was getting the language right. I was writing across race and time. I kept a vocabulary journal and mined words from diaries and narratives of the period. The emotional aspects of the boys seemed to evolve as I did the research and outlined the plot. By the time the actual writing started, I knew these boys pretty well.

The Old West was a beautiful but harsh and dangerous place. Much of the action happens as the characters cross that hazardous land. Would you say that the West is itself a character in your book? (what a grown-up librarian sort of question to ask!)
I don’t know if it’s a character (maybe!), but the difficulty and harsh nature of the land was so much a part of the common experience of the time. I think we tend to forget what a hardship day-to-day living was for pioneers, particularly cowboys. They had to be tough and determined. I didn’t want to gloss over that in my story.

Why is it cool for boys to read/write?
I once heard a writer talk about reading lots of comics and adventure stories when he was a boy. That’s not a bad thing at all. But one day his seventh grade teacher told him that he was reading widely, and it was time he began to read deeply. The teacher gave him a copy of the novel Look Homeward Angel. Reading and writing help us live bigger, richer lives. They help us express our dreams and our opinions and tell our own stories. It’s cool for boys to be part of that.

Did you read comics as a girl? Did you have a favorite character?
I loved Brenda Starr. She was a glamorous Chicago reporter who always had intrigue and adventure no matter what news story she followed. Smart, independent, and beautiful, Brenda had a mysterious boyfriend, Basil St. John. She eventually got promoted to editor and married Basil. I kind of stopped reading after that.

What are your favorite sports?
I grew up in Texas where football reigns, so the game is near and dear to my heart. But I’m also a chump for ice hockey. It’s fast and tough, and the guys have to skate backward.

Which do you prefer—cheeseburgers or pizza? What do you like on them?
To me, pizza is the ultimate comfort food. My fav is thin crust pepperoni with extra sauce. Then, I usually top it off with a Fudgesicle. Ah, perfection.

You seem pretty cool. Could we make you an Honorary Guy?
I would love it. I have two sons and a husband, which makes for a totally male household. Being an Honorary Guy would put me in the club—awesome!
Thanks, Ms.Hemphill! We look forward to seeing you. (DON'T FORGET--she will be at Imaginon to talk about her book and do a writing exercise based on photos of South Dakota on February 5 at 11:00 am) And we will present you the coveted Honorary Guy Certificate while you're here!
PS--here's a book trailer for Deadwood Jones:

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