Monday, May 28, 2012

Interview with Beth Neff, debut author of Getting Somewhere

Today we have a special guest, Beth Neff with us for an interview. Beth is the debut author of Getting Somewhere, a 2012 contemporary novel. I am currently reading this book and you can watch out for a review and giveaway sometime in the near future.

Tell us a little about yourself and the book(s) you've written...

 Getting Somewhere is my first published novel, but words and language and books have been a great love of mine from a very young age. I read avidly as a child and teenager, both fiction and non-fiction, and one of the best gifts I ever received was a list composed by my senior English teacher (for me, she claimed – and I believed her!) of what she considered to be the ‘100 novels that should be read by every educated person.’ (I kept that piece of paper folded up in my back pocket at least all summer after high school and maybe beyond!)

Though I majored in journalism and anthropology at the University of Michigan – I’d been convinced that creative writing was too impractical – I think, inadvertently, that choice provided me with both skills and a world view that have served me well despite the fact that writing stayed pretty much on the back burner for a long time after. Instead, most of my adult life has been devoted to raising four homeschooled kids on our ten-acre farm, milking dairy goats and making cheese, growing organic produce for a year-round, indoor farmers market that I founded in my town, and doing sustainability activism, eventually leading the project to develop our community’s first sustainable master plan.

After nearly thirty years of farming, I finally decided to turn back to my first love to see if it might welcome me back. It has!

Describe your main characters. If they were real people, would you be friends with them?

 Getting Somewhere is the story of four very different girls who have been convicted of juvenile crimes and choose to serve out their sentences in an alternative detention program located on an organic farm. The narrative switches back and forth between the girls, providing each one’s perspective on the very challenging experiences she is confronting in this unfamiliar environment.

We are introduced first to Jenna who is described as someone who would willingly push others out of the way to get where she has to go. And yet she is, of course, much more complex than that, having been shuffled around from foster home to foster home, eventually landing in juvenile detention as a result of taking the fall for much more hardened (and sophisticated) criminals. She’s turned her hurt into a shell and we are given the opportunity to watch while that shell either weakens a bit and falls away or installs itself as a permanent burden on her back.  Cassie, on the other hand, has no experience of the world at all. She has spent her childhood living in an isolated trailer with her grandmother, who has gradually deteriorated mentally, leaving Cassie as the primary caretaker. Their only outside connection is with Cassie’s uncle who, while keeping them alive and fed, turns out to be more curse than blessing. Cassie’s crime does not become clear until late in the book but her personal struggle to fit in, to find something she can call ‘self,’ is a vibrant theme throughout the story. Then there’s Sarah. She ran away from home at thirteen and, as happens to so many girls on the street, becomes the victim of drugs and prostitution. At first, the farm simply means a warm bed and hot meals but she is hard-pressed to resist the pressures – of all kinds – to participate in the drama that ensues there. The last girl is Lauren. She’s a thief and a manipulator and yet no less a victim of the poor decisions of the adults around her than the others. While I don’t know anyone exactly like Lauren – or any of the others, for that matter – there is a little piece of each one of them in all of us. And as one very wise writer said recently, you have to fall a little bit in love with your characters, no matter how difficult. At times, I just want to give each of them a great big hug!  

What is one thing you'd like your readers to take away from your book(s)?

That most of what we believe is a result of what others have told us, including how we think about ourselves. At some point, in order to be truly empowered, we have to become aware of and spend some time exploring what we think, what our senses and experiences tell us about the truth and use that information to determine what we love and who we want to be.  

If all book summaries were haiku poems, yours would say...

Three young girls, all hurt
Sent to a farm, chance to heal
Each needs the others

Is there a dedication at the beginning of your book? Who did you dedicate it to and why?

The dedication includes my four kids and also a very wonderful friend who, at the time I was just beginning to think about Getting Somewhere, worked at a juvenile detention center. One snowy weekend, I was trapped by the weather at the home of he and his partner and we spent many hours talking about the background and behaviors of the kids he worked with and his personal experience as their caretaker. The time we spent together was critical to the development of the novel, providing me with a combination of impetus and material that guided the story from beginning to end.  

What will your next book be about?

I have just submitted the manuscript for my next novel to my editor at Viking/Penguin (keep your fingers crossed!) It is the story of a kidnapping in which a young girl finds herself smack-dab in the middle of a full-blown, youth-driven class war. The chapters alternate between her experience as a captive and the efforts of her best friend to find out what has happened to her and to get her back.

What was life like for you when YOU were a teen?

Life was kind of tough for me as a teen. For example, when I was twelve, my family moved to a new city with almost no discussion or preparation among us and I felt like I’d lost everything that was ‘me.’ (They actually made the physical move while I was gone at summer camp so I left from one place and came back to another without really getting to say my goodbyes. I think I was pretty upset but had learned already by then not to show it.) Everybody says that, if you have to move, it’s best to do it between grade school and middle school or middle school and high school when everyone else is also moving to a new school. My own experience tells me it’s just the opposite. Since all the kids are under a bit of stress to figure how they’ll belong, they are even more resistant than usual to welcoming new people into the fold, hold onto their existing relationships with desperate enthusiasm. I fell in with kind of bad element early on but somehow never allowed myself to slip too far. I was mostly just lucky.

Some things are too private to share but I know that I made some decisions that, if I’d had more parental involvement and support, I probably would have considered more fully. I can honestly say, though, that I am happy with the person I’ve become as a result of the challenges of my childhood and adolescence.

Do you have pets? Can you tell us a little about them?

We have a three-year-old dog named Pele (named after the great soccer player.) He’s a black lab mix that we got at the shelter, incredibly sweet and affectionate, quite smart in some ways and not so much in others (just like all of us.) He’s actually supposed to be my youngest son’s dog but you know how that goes, who does most of the care… and who will do all of it when my son goes off to college this fall.

I’m still glad, though, that my older son talked me into getting Pele as a gift for his brother two Christmases ago. I think the hardest thing for my three oldest kids going off to college and beginning their adult lives has been the thought of leaving their little brother behind. Not only do they miss him literally but they all feel so strongly about the bonds they shared as younger kids (homeschooling will definitely do that to you!) and can hardly stand the idea that the youngest is now without siblings at home. Hence the insistence that he at least have a dog! And I think they were right. Pele’s the perfect hermano, certainly less bossy than the human variety! And he makes sure we know if there’s a deer or a groundhog or even a squirrel in the garden. Or a robin. Or a chipmunk. Or…

What is your favourite tv show? Favourite movie?

We don’t have television but my favorite movies are Billy Elliot, Good Will Hunting, and either the Bourne movies or the Mission Impossible series.

Is there a Y.A. novel you wish YOU wrote?

I’m not sure there’s any writer in the world who wouldn’t wish she had written the Harry Potter series. I am continually amazed at how fantastic these stories are, how brilliantly conceived and how cleverly written. I just listened to the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) on tape while working on a quilt I’m making and actually found myself laughing out loud and tearing up even though I’ve read and heard this book a number of times already. It’s kind of hard to know whether the negatives of being as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling would outweigh the positives but most of us wouldn’t mind the opportunity to find out. J I’d love to think about where to donate most of that income to feel like I’d really made a positive impact on the world.

What is the most fun you’ve ever had?

The first things that come to mind are activities with the kids over the years – camping trips, museum visits, games in the backyard or even at the kitchen table on rainy days, all of us snuggled around a good book before bedtime. But I have to admit that, over the date of my book release, I did school visits in Chicago for two days, stayed overnight in a motel by myself, found my way to vastly scattered suburban destinations with the help of a detailed Chicago map (no GPS or even Internet on my phone,) and had a great time doing it. The school visits  themselves ranged from a classroom of advanced readers to an auditorium full of seventh and eighth graders during the last period of the day – and every one of them was a total blast. I love speaking with kids. I love exploring issues, talking about books, discussing writing. Maybe it will get old after awhile but, for now, being an author is the most fun I’ve ever had.

What advice would you give your teen readers about life?

Whatever you practice is what you’ll be best at (that’s why they call it practicing kindness or practicing medicine.) And nobody is really good at anything unless they give it their full time and attention. You are the best person to live the life you’ve been given and it really matters what choices you make, how you decide to live it. And never forget that whatever is going on now will be over soon.

Thank you for sharing with us, Beth. Here is some more information about Beth and Getting Somewhere:
Summary for Getting Somewhere:

Four girls: dealer, junkie, recluse, thief.

Sarah, Jenna, Lauren, and Cassie may look like ordinary girls, but they’re not. They’re delinquents whose lives collide when they’re sent to an experimental juvenile detention program on a farm in the middle of nowhere. As the girls face up to the crimes they committed, three of them will heal the wounds of their pasts and discover strengths they never dreamed they had. And one, driven by a deep secret of her own, will seek to destroy everything they’ve all worked so hard for.

Find it on Goodreads and Amazon

 Author Bio:

Beth Neff studied journalism and anthropology at the University of Michigan. She has worked as a vegetable farmer, sustainability activist, community planner, and founded and managed a farmers market. A mother of four, she also home-schooled all of her children. Neff and her youngest son live in southwestern Michigan where she writes full-time.

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