Bookseller-turned-author Linda Urban released her first middle-grade novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect (Harcourt), in 2007. Since then she’s published another novel and a picture book, and The Center of Everything, her third work for middle-graders, comes out this month. The story follows 12-year-old Ruby as she deals with the passing of her grandmother and tries to make her greatest wish come true. She spoke with PW from her home in Vermont about wishes, myths – and doughnut lore.
You address a tough subject in The Center of Everything – grief. Did you set out to write about grief and the regrets that may come up with the passing of a loved one?
I didn’t set out to write about grief. What came to me first was an image. I had an image of a girl on a parade route. I could see her from the back. She was waiting; I had no idea what she was waiting for, but I knew it meant a lot to her. The word “grief” itself didn’t occur to me until later in the story. I never know what I’m writing about until I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing the story.
The subtleties of Ruby dealing with her grief lead to her being a very strong character. She is obviously extremely sad about losing her grandmother, but finds ways to help herself, such as forming a friendship with Nero. Are you drawn to writing strong characters that are able to help themselves?
I love that you say that because sometimes I hear from people that my characters are weak and don’t stand up for themselves. But Ruby tries to figure things out for herself. I think we all try to do this – we try and hold it all together, but when we let go a little bit and let people help us, that’s what makes us stronger.
I love the character of Nero. I loved how he shows up and starts asking all these questions. When Ruby lets him help her a bit, she begins to get stronger.
You’ve said that you like stories where interaction with someone who seems so different from the main character provides her with a new way of seeing herself. This is true in The Center of Everything as well. Did you have someone like that in your life as a child, or even as an adult?
Yes, periodically. My very best friends are the ones who initially seem very much like me but then turn out to be very different from me. I’ve been very lucky and had friends like that in high school and college. It’s even like that where I live in Vermont. You have people who have lived in Vermont for a very long time, and others who are transplants, and they see Vermont in a very different way. It’s hard to remember that everyone has a different experience. I think you see that for the first time in the key middle school years when you’re 11 or 12. For example, I tell my daughter that the girl who sits at the desk next to hers has a different experience than her, even though they sit next to each other every day.
Your characters in this novel, especially Ruby, are very forgiving. For instance, Ruby’s best friend Lucy is quite self-centered, but Ruby never says a word about it. Do you think forgiveness is important to write about in books for middle-graders?
I do. And in some ways, Ruby is trying to forgive herself. If Ruby can come to the conclusion that she can forgive her friend then she can do what she needs to do – forgive herself.
You alternate chapters between the present and the past, and from one character’s point of view to another. Was this the way you set out to write the book, or is this the way you found it best to tell Ruby’s story?
Since I never know what I’m writing about when I start a story, it’s usually a word or a phrase that comes first, but this one was different for me because I got the image of the girl at the parade first. Parades are really weird things. Most time in our lives we are the ones who walk through a town, but in a parade, the town walks through us. By writing in different voices, [I let] readers see that other people in the town have thoughts about what’s going on.
In the story, the town’s history is based on a legend of a man who put doughnuts on the spokes of the boat’s wheel during a storm to keep them from rolling away. In your author notes, you mention that the story of the doughnuts comes from a story you heard about a Maine sailor who rescued his doughnuts in a similar fashion to Captain Bunning. When did you first hear this story?
I don’t remember the first time I read the story, but in my head I pictured the Gorton Fisherman with doughnuts on the spokes of his wheel. When I was writing the first chapter of the book, all these circles kept coming up and then I remembered the story about doughnuts.
Also, I like the way we try to explain things to ourselves with myths and legends, or try and see how we all belong to something. The legend of Captain Bunning and his doughnuts is something that has power, and even though it’s a story about doughnuts, it has a sense of legend that people can unite themselves around.
With your character Nero DeNiro, you make the point that we aren’t able to choose our names, but rather an adult gives us them and we have to live with them. Did you wish you had a different name growing up?
I wanted to be named Judy Coins. When I was younger and I played games, I would always be Judy Coins. It’s so unfair that the thing by which everyone will understand you first is something you don’t get to pick!
Wishes play an important part in the book. What do you think is the allure of wishes for kids? Do you think it’s the potential of it all?
I do think it’s the mystery and potential. It’s also that the great frustration of being a kid is that so many things are out of your control. There’s the idea that if your wish came true, you might be able to control or change something.
You worked at Vroman’s, an independent bookstore, for more than a decade. Did your time at the bookstore make you want to be a writer, or were you already a writer when you began working at Vroman’s?
I was not a writer. I’d just finished writing all my course work for my PhD and was avoiding writing.
Vroman’s was probably the best job I ever had. For the first eight years I worked there, I’d never given a thought to writing at all. I was writing promotional copy and a newsletter and I hosted author events, so I was writing in support of other creative people. But things changed when we started our Saturday morning writers’ workshop series. Authors would come and talk for 45 minutes about writing. The program was a big success – such a success that sometimes we had about 150 people at the event, and sometimes we had to go outside because 300 people came. So even though I had no intention of writing, when I heard these authors talking about writing good sentences, and good characters, you can’t help but write one in your head.
Do you miss being a bookseller?
My local indie bookstore is Bear Pond Books, and I can’t go in there without handselling things. And I still alphabetize books. I can’t help it.
I love being home with my kids and writing at home, but the vitality of a bookstore is so energizing. I wish I could do a retreat and work at a bookstore for a week. It’s such a magical sort of energy boost. I do miss it.
Was there any one particular thing you learned while hosting the writers’ workshop that made you a better writer?
It wasn’t any one piece of advice, but more that there are as many ways to write a book as there are people in the world. If you write with heart and intention, that’s what makes a good book. You don’t have to be as funny as Anne Lamott or have a brilliant hook like Alice Sebold. You just have to tell your stories with what tools you have to make it work.
Are you working on any new projects you can talk about?
I have two things in mind. One is close to an adventure book, which is a change for me. I have no idea if it will turn out to be just a learning tool to write that kind of book or something that others might want to read.
And I have another idea, but that’s just a glimmer right now.
Are you doing any special events to promote The Center of Everything?
Yes, we’re doing a very cool giveaway. I’m getting entries from booksellers and librarians, and five winners will get a Skype visit on June 7. And since that day is National Doughnut Day, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is sending out doughnuts to the winners. I’ve done Skype visits before, but rarely with pastry.
And as part of the Middle Grade Mania tour, Harcourt is sending me out along with a group of middle-grade authors to locations like Anderson’s Bookshop and Politics and Prose. It’s not always easy to get audiences at middle-grade events, but we hope that grouping a bunch of authors together will work.
The Center of Everything by Linda Urban. Harcourt, $15.99 (Mar.) ISBN 978-0-547-76348-4
For PW’s review, click here.