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Tell us a favorite bus memory, school or otherwise, in the comments below and you could win one of five giveaway copies of Janie’s new book, Somebody on This Bus is Going to Be Famous!
Extra, Extra! Read all about it! Step right up, ladies and gentlemen!
Our very own Janie Cheaney is celebrating a book birthday as her latest novel, Somebody on This Bus is Going to Be Famous, hits store shelves this week. In honor of her accomplishment, we are featuring an interview with the author herself as well as a review of the book. I may be the only one on the Redeemed Reader staff who has read all of Janie’s middle grades fare, but I can assure you that this is one of Janie’s best works–perhaps the best. It is artistically distinctive, is a great read, and packs a punch. It’s been chosen as a JLG Fall Selection–quite an honor since this means that all school libraries who subscribe to JLG in certain middle grades categories will automatically get a copy of this book! JLG picks very good books.
The basic construct of the book places nine middle school kids on their common school bus; each chapter brings us inside a different character’s head even as it jumps ahead in time slightly. Nine students, nine months of the school year. During the course of the school year, the nine students each contribute to solving a mystery that involves their bus driver and a mystery bus stop. Our book review includes a few discussion questions on the book as well.
But now, onto an interview with the author herself.
One of my early “this reminds me of” moments connected Somebody with The Bridge of San Luis Rey. You allude to that in your author’s note at the end. Was that book in the back of your mind when you put the end of the story at the beginning of the novel? I also kept thinking of The View From Saturday because of the many perspectives in the story. Did that book influence you as well?
The View from Saturday was an inspiration–it let me know that the thing I was attempting (telling a story with more than two protagonists) was possible. Another inspiration is Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins, which also tells a story from four points of view. San Luis Rey gave me the idea for my opening chapter because, like that classic Thornton Wilder novel, it “starts” at the end and skips backwards in time to unravel the characters’ lives.
How did you dream up the schoolbus setting? Was there a particular inspiration for that, especially since you didn’t grow up riding a bus nor did your kids?
The bus seemed like the ideal matrix–the one place where all the characters are regularly together and where I could establish a central narrative. I like the idea of going back and forth, back and forth every day following the same routine where nothing seems to change. But momentous changes are going on nonetheless. Most of us live our lives in a routine that gradually shapes and refines us; it’s a tool that God uses for that purpose.
You did a remarkable job of crafting so many different voices in this story. Was that more difficult than spending the entire book inside one character’s head? Was there one character that was especially hard to portray?
That’s the part I was most afraid of. Publishers shy away from multiple voices—at most, you’re only supposed to present two. But when I wrote the first chapter, the characters all lined up to get on the bus: all nine of them, as if they were answering names on the roll call. In fact, they came with their names–I ended up changing only one.
How did you determine the various backstories and struggles for each character? Are they modeled on your observations of society at large or people you know or…. ? And, along with this, how did you determine race and other physical characteristics?
I think the best characters are modeled on real life. Kaitlynn (not her real name) charged into my classroom one morning when I was conducting a workshop at a young writers conference, and she was pretty much the way I described her in the story. For others, I knew I was going to introduce some stereotypes: the bully, the brainy kid, the athlete, the rock star, so I had some personality types to start with . Adding physical characteristics and individual traits is mostly a matter of getting to know them better. I always have to do this after I’m about two-thirds through a story—stop, back up, and think about these people some more. At this point, interviews can be helpful. I write up a list of questions that they all answer in character. (And some of them always refuse to answer some questions!) It’s like an artist making a sketch—first the charcoal outlines, then the main features, the shadings and details. It takes me a whole lot longer, though.
I’d love to see your interview questions for your characters! This next question is like question 3, but this novel is tightly plotted and you do a great job of weaving in details along the way. Was it a harder novel to write as you juggled when to reveal parts of the mystery or shed light on a particular character? (Harder than your other mg novels, that is)
I wrote three drafts of this novel: the first was for my former editor at Random House, who thought it had potential and made some suggestions. So I rewrote it according to her suggestions, and she turned it down anyway (nothing is certain in the publishing world!). I let a few years go by while doing other things, like RedeemedReader.com, but kept thinking about this manuscript and eventually rewrote it again, with the ending at the beginning. That may have worked some magic, but also, I’ve found that projects just have to wait for their time. Otherwise, I don’t think it was notably harder than my other novels.
Finally, there are a few characters who use words that some of my more conservative friends would be disappointed to read (“sucks” and “freaking” come to mind). How do you balance the tension between portraying reality in its grittiness with portraying grace?
That’s a tough one. I wanted it to sound “real” without crossing the line, but everybody has different lines. Here’s my main one: I do not misuse the name of God. At one point a character says “Oh God,” but in the context it’s a prayer, even though it could be interpreted differently. The two examples you cite are probably the most outstanding examples of edgy language, except for one use of hell, as in “a helluva situation.” That’s said by an adult, by the way. The novel is intended for older middle-graders, and one reviewer actually said it was applicable to young adults. There are some challenging situations portrayed, of a sort that kids commonly have to deal with, with the biggest challenge at the very end. But that’s exactly where grace shines through, when one character realizes what a gift life is and finds himself extraordinarily grateful.
What’s your next book?
I’m happy to say there is one! It should be coming out next August. It’s historical fiction set in 1918 Hollywood during the silent-movie era. We haven’t settled on a title yet, but my editor likes this: I Don’t Know How the Story Ends. What do you think?