Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Virtual Tour Continues: Grace E. Howell

1. I am very impressed by your bio, and enjoyed the stories about your grandfather (see: You've been a teacher, a librarian, a quilt maker and a Master Gardener, among other things. And by the way, just what is a "Master Gardener?" It sounds like an official designation.

Master Gardener certainly is an official designation. To become a Master Gardener you have to take a gardening course from the agriculture extension office in your community. The course includes something on just about all aspects of gardening. Then after you are certified, you must give a number of hours work each year to remain part of the Master Gardener Association, continue your gardening education, and educate others in gardening and environmental concerns. I was very active in the association for eight years, but when I began writing full time after TRUE FRIENDS was published, I became inactive and now only work in my own yard, my children's yards, my church yard, and an occasional Habitat for Humanity home. Most of what I do now is landscape design and advice instead of actually the digging and planting that I love so much.

2. You have taught ESL (English as a Second Language.) What foreign language(s) do you work with?

Both of my teaching experiences in ESL were with adults from various countries who were very motivated to learn English. At the University of Memphis, I was a substitute teacher in their Intensified English Instruction, which was a language-immersion program. I worked with vocabulary and conversational skills. The majority of students were from Korea with some from Japan, Thailand, and several African countries, only one Spanish speaker. At my church, I organized and created the curriculum for Conversational English for adult students and immigrants. This class included Chinese, Afrikaners, Brazilians, Bulgarians, Japanese, Iranians, Haitians, and Spanish speakers from Central and South America. Needless to say, I did not know all those languages. In neither of these classes did I work with any language other than English. What was so amazing to me was that the students quickly bonded with each other in English as that was the only language they had in common.

3. With gardening and quilt making a big part of your life, do you consider yourself more in touch with traditions and history? Talk about how this influenced your writing.

I think everything in a writer's background has an influence on who the writer is and what he/she has to say. Naturally, people write about what they know or like as that comes to the surface during the writing process. As for me, I'm not sure that I'm more in tune with the past than the present. Currently I'm working on a contemporary series that definitely involves issues facing us today. I believe that human needs and emotions are the same throughout the ages, and that's mainly what my writing has focused on. Not the differences in past and present, but the similarities.

4. TRUE FRIENDS sounds like a great book for middle grade readers. Tell us about the story, and the various ways you were able to research this time period and its history.

TRUE FRIENDS is a coming of age story in which Annie must give up her tomboy days with the boys and become a young lady. While she searches for girl friends and tries to meet society's demands, she faces suspicions and accusations stemming from World War I, as well as racial prejudices of the time. During the tragedy of the 1918 flu epidemic, she begins to "grow up" and to know what is valuable to her.

I grew up in old South Memphis where TRUE FRIENDS takes place, and I had been collecting oral history for this story for a long time from people who lived in that time or heard stories from their parents. Then I spent a summer in the library reading 1918 newspapers from Memphis, Nashville, and New York. Newspapers are invaluable to absorb the flavor and feeling of a time. I also read a number of books, fiction and nonfiction, on the time, and some of the novel came from family stories.

5. Are you working on anything now? Will you continue to write for young adults?

I am working on a middle grade contemporary series, UNLIKELY ALLIANCE, in which three seventh grade misfits reluctantly become friends while each battles severe personal and neighborhood problems. I really like middle grade and young adult books, both to read and to write. And I like the people who read those books so, YES, I will continue to write for young people. I keep hoping more people will realize that a good book for young people is good for anybody. Something quite surprising to me is that so many adults have read and like TRUE FRIENDS. Most surprising has been the number of men who keep asking me when my next book will be out. Recently a middle-aged guy told me he liked TF better than Harry Potter. Unbelievable!

6. How did being a librarian help you in your writing? (And, I have to ask: do your local libraries have your book on their shelves??)

I'm not sure that being a librarian has helped me with my writing, but I will certainly say that having all the books in my library to read has definitely helped. I read constantly both books for young readers and for adults. A good number of libraries in Memphis have TRUE FRIENDS on their shelves; some have had it rebound as a hardback. Both the school libraries and the public libraries say money is a major problem for them to get all the books they would like.

7. What has been your biggest obstacle in getting TRUE FRIENDS from concept to royalty check?

I think, as most authors of a first novel will say, simply finding a publisher was the biggest challenge.

8. What has been the most thrilling aspect of being a published author?

After the first thrill when Karen Syed of Echelon Press offered me a contract, the biggest thrill for me has been appearing at several book festivals as a festival author and receiving accolades from the sponsors and the public. Right up there is the reception I've received at schools from students and parents.

9. Where can readers find TRUE FRIENDS, and learn more about you?

For more about me and TRUE FRIENDS, you can check out my website at and my new blog at
You can get TRUE FRIENDS from Follett,, bookstores, and Echelon Press.

Thank you, Anne, for giving me the chance to be here with you and talk about my writing. I have truly enjoyed it.

Thanks Grace!
Interview by Anne Carter, author of POINT SURRENDER

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