Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Mr. Pig Special . . . with Kerry O'Malley Cerra

We're thrilled to have Kerry O'Malley Cerra, debut author of the highly praised middle grade novel Just a Drop of Water, with us today!

A former history teacher, Kerry describes her gripping and poignant story as a "coming-of-age tale in which 13-year-old Jake Green is forced--for the first time--to see the world for its sometimes big ugly self, in the aftermath of September 11.

School Library Journal calls Just a Drop of Water "an excellent book sure to spur thoughtful discussion.” 

Thanks for visiting, Kerry! You've tackled a difficult topic. Was it hard writing about 9/11?
Most definitely! By far the most difficult day was when I watched YouTube video after YouTube video of the actual planes hitting the two World Trade Towers, and then tried to portray it as a 13-year-old boy—who had no clue as to what was really happening at that point—would describe it. I had to strip all of my own knowingness, emotions, and so forth to be authentic to Jake’s voice. 

When I got my writing to a fairly decent point and couldn’t stand to watch the videos again, I had to go for a walk. Two houses down, I threw up—though even that didn’t make me feel better. But then the worrying set in, too. Would readers think Jake was shallow for his thoughts? Would readers think I—as the author—was trying to capitalize on such a tragedy? So, yeah, it was hard to write, but, in a way, it’s still hard even now that it’s out there.

How much of the book is factual and how much is fictional?
I’m really glad you asked this question. I’ve include an Author’s Note on my website that touches on this, as I feel it’s important for kids to know what was real and what I added to enhance the story. The timing of the events--such as the planes hitting, the President’s speeches, and Tropical Storm Gabrielle blowing through Florida in the days following 9/11--are authentic. Likewise, our smallish town did lose six members of our community in the attacks that day. 

I find it interesting that several boys who have read the book asked me about the NFL postponing the games that weekend following September 11 — which is also true. Maybe this small fact puts the tragedy in perspective for them, I don’t know. But I did include as many smaller details as possible to preserve the mood and events for readers. 

It’s important to note that the final mosque scene is entirely fictional. Though there were mosque attacks around the country after September 11, there were no mosque attacks in Coral Springs, nor is there a mosque in town. I took some creative licensing with that, in order to tell a story about where the road of prejudice can lead. The story of the mother is fictional, and yet her backstory is based on a real American hostage incident that occurred in Sudan in 1973 and involved an Arab PLO terrorist group called Black September. The depth that the mother was able to add to this story, because of her past, is one I hope kids in classrooms all around the country will be able to learn from. We cannot let fear control us.


How much time did you spend researching the story, and did you learn anything surprising along the way?  
I think I was subconsciously taking notes beginning September 11, 2001 and on. I never planned to write a book about 9/11, but the history teacher in me processed every ounce of information that came out immediately following the attacks—and the days, weeks, months, years following. I’m intrigued by the whys and hows of the events. What did we do wrong to allow ourselves to be attacked? What can we do to avoid it in the future? I’m always thinking. Sadly, my brain rarely shuts off.  Once I knew I was going to write the book and the angle I was going to take, it took me about four years from first to final draft. 

Do you have a writing process or does it vary from book to book?
Ha! No! Out of 365 days in a year, I think I spend less than fifty writing. I have three kids and love volunteering at their schools, being team mom for sports, participating in booster clubs, and chaperoning trips. I do that pretty much full time, and the writing comes when I can squeeze it in. I know my kids won’t be around on a daily basis for much longer, so I’ve prioritized them. I certainly don’t long for the day they leave home, but I’ll definitely get a lot more writing done. 

This is your debut novel. Was the publication process what you expected? 
Everyone says publishing is a roller coaster, so I was prepared for that. Yet I’d call myself a pretty faith-filled person. My kids went to a Catholic preschool that had a turtle mascot and the motto, "In His time …" I sort of adopted it for myself when I decided to pursue publication and always had faith that I’d end up exactly where I was meant to be. Don’t get me wrong, there were days I was really down after a rejection or getting my hopes set on something that didn’t work out, but the day my future agent wrote me an email professing her love for my story and saying she “had to represent it,” and then found the most perfect editor in the whole wide world for both me and this story, I’d say I did end up exactly where I was meant to be. I wouldn’t change a single thing!

Tell us something random or fun that most people don't know about you.
I really don’t like showing my emotions—okay, this mostly applies to me being sad or upset. But . . . I literally cried when we were in California and I saw The Lone Cypress tree at Pebble Beach. There was something completely soul-stirring for me in that moment. Shhh, don’t tell anyone else.

Are you working on anything new?
Remember, working is a loose term with me, but, yes. Haha! For now, I’m super busy planning the launch and signing for Just a Drop of Water. I want to enjoy every second of this and not worry about what’s next, just yet. However, I do plan to revise my first novel, The Sacredness of Spit Swears, soon. And, I have eleven pages of a new middle-grade novel in the works that I’m crazy-excited about. It’s the first time I’m writing from a girl’s point-of-view and I’m loving her voice. Stay tuned. . . .

We'll look forward to them! Thank you for visiting, Kerry, and congratulations on the success of your debut novel!
My pleasure. Thanks for having me!

Sky Pony Press, September 2014
ISBN 978-1-6291-4613-3

“Historical fact and realistic fiction elements are woven together with an expert hand, making readers care about this moment in history and giving educators an excellent book sure to spur thoughtful discussion.” --School Library Journal

 “A perceptive exploration of an event its audience already sees as history … the supplemental material middle-grade history teachers are looking for.” --Kirkus

“9/11 reverberates in a middle-school boy’s life, thrusting him into a bigger and more threatening world. This is history tensely told for readers too young to remember the moment when this century truly began.” —Richard Peck, author of  On The Wings of Heroes 

“Tackling a difficult topic, Kerry O’Malley Cerra captures the mood of the country right after September 11 in a way that’s not frightening or sensationalized. This well-told, poignant novel about prejudice, school bullying, and best friends should spark discussion and capture the hearts of young readers for a very long time.” —Augusta Scattergood, author of Glory Be

About Kerry O'Malley Cerra
Kerry O'Malley Cerra is a former high school history teacher who often enhanced textbooks with historical fiction to bring time periods to life. Just a Drop of Water was inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Though she'll always consider Philly her home, she currently lives in Florida with her husband, kids, and three poorly behaved dogs.

To learn more about Kerry and download teaching resources, visit her website, http://www.kerryomalleycerra.com.

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