I am so excited to be participating in The Ontario Teen Book Fest Blog Tour. This year I will be spotlighting two author that will be attending OTBF this year: E. Katherine Kottaras and Cindy Pon. Today I will be spotlighting E. Katherine Kottaras, author of How To Be Brave and The Best Possible Answer. Scroll down the post for my interview with her.
The Ontario Teen Book Fest is on Saturday March 25th from 9 am to 5 pm at Colony High School 3850 E. Riverside Drive, Ontario, CA 91761. The Fest is UNTICKETED and is completely FREE. For more information visit The Ontario Teen Book Fest website: http://www.ontariotbf.org/
The event is sponsored by Once Upon A Time. They will have books available for purchase at the event. There will also be t-shirts and posters available for purchase as well. Visit their website: http://www.shoponceuponatime.com/
Be sure to check out the rest of the Ontario Teen Book Fest Blog Tour:
Blog Tour Schedule
E. Katherine Kottaras is originally from Chicago, and now she writes and teaches in the Los Angeles area. She holds an M.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine and teaches writing and literature at Pasadena City College. She is an active member of NCTE and SCBWI, as well as a proud board member of the Children’s Literature Council of Southern California. Katherine is interested in the stories we tell, the stories we are given, and the ways we can redefine our worlds by discovering which stories are true.
She is the author of the YA contemporary novel, HOW TO BE BRAVE (2015) and the forthcoming THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER (2016), both from St. Martin’s Press/Griffin Teen.
To find out more about E. Katherine Kottaras visit her website: www.ekatwrites.com
- What were the inspiration behind your books How To Be Brave and The Best Possible Answer?
Many writers talk about books that are the “stories of their hearts.” My first book, HOW TO BE BRAVE, was most definitely that since it is told through the eyes of Georgia, a Greek-American teenager whose mother passes away. I am half-Greek, and my father died when I was seventeen, so much of the story, in terms of its exploration of grief and loss, identity and love, came directly from my heart and my life. HOW TO BE BRAVE is about a girl who has lived her life in fear and who sets out to try new things, despite her insecurities. Before her death, her mom commanded Georgia to live differently—to try everything at least once and to never be ruled by fear. Of course, there are many similarities between Georgia and me. Georgia also feels uncomfortable in her body that’s deemed “overweight” by society’s standards, and part of her storyline is that she finds confidence in her body, as it is – that losing weight does not equal being brave. This has been part of my storyline has well.
My second book, THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER, is equally the story of my heart. Viviana is a driven honors student and the daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant mom and an American engineer dad who have extremely high academic expectations for her. As a result of both these expectations and an exposing mistake Viviana made in sharing a nude photo with her boyfriend (who proceeded to send it to the entire school), Viviana suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks. She knows that she didn’t do anything wrong in sending the photo to him – she trusted and loved him at the time – but world still blames and shames her for it.
At her summer job, Viviana is finally able to escape the judgmental eyes of her school, but she soon becomes the odd vertex of a love triangle; her childhood best friend, Sammie, has a crush on the outgoing, college-aged lifeguard, Evan, but he seems to be more interested in Viviana. Against her better judgment, Viviana falls for him, thereby damaging yet another important relationship in her life and disappointing herself. Soon after, when her father finally returns from his mysterious six-month long business trip, Viviana discovers some deep, dark truths about him that force her to question all of her ideas about love and trust and the control she has over her life.
I am both first- and second- generation American (my father immigrated from Greece in 1952; my mother’s parents immigrated from Russia in 1913), so I am always interested in the unique pressures of being the child of immigrants, as I was, as many of my students are, and as Viviana is.
Furthermore, when I was in high school and college, I was in honors classes, including AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (the International Baccalaureate program). While some of the pressure to succeed came from my parents, much of it was simply part of the system. I continuously and secretly suffered from anxiety and paralyzing panic attacks through my twenties, both from the grief of losing my father and from the pressures of success. The thing is, I didn’t really know what was happening – that it was called GAD (general anxiety disorder) or panic attacks, or that it was something I should seek help for. In fact, I’d been told that if I ever sought psychological help via a therapist or group support, I should not use my own medical insurance for fear that my employers would find out that I was “unstable” and I might therefore lose my job. It took me many years to finally seek support and understand my own mind.
As a teacher at both the high school and community college levels, I’ve met many students who also feel the intense pressures of success, both from their families and from the mere need for financial survival, and who as a result, suffer from severe (and often secret) anxiety. I teach English where we focus on creative expression and the makings of an examined life, so students often want to share their inner lives with me, both in writing and in conversation, including their mental health. I remind them that I am not a psychologist or counselor, and I also direct them towards our free psychological services, but many students respond that their parents would – and I quote – “kill” them if they knew they had sought psychological help. Every time I hear this, my heart breaks. There is a stigma attached to the very real experience of GAD and panic attacks, as well as to psychological counseling. I wrote THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER for both myself when I was a teenager, and most certainly for my students and readers who are like my students, so that they can see their experience represented and also find that there does not have to be that stigma, that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of self-care and beautiful strength.
- You teach writing and literature at Pasadena City College. How do you balance teaching with your writing?
My writing informs my teaching, just as my teaching informs my writing. I couldn’t imagine not doing both; in fact, doing both is what provides the balance, as I am continually in a state of inquiry about the world outside the page, and that informs the world within the page.
Joan Didion said, “We write to discover what we think.” This speaks the core of my experience as a writer, and it’s a thought that I share with my students repeatedly. Whether I am teaching creative writing, literature, or composition, I want my students to begin from a place of inquiry. I want them to see writing as an exploration, a journey of discovery, a path towards knowledge.
I also think it’s important to be honest with my students when discussing how horribly frustrating that process can be. I tell them when I’m experiencing writer’s block; I show them my rejection letters; I let them know that I, too, cry sometimes when the words just will not come. I’ve always believed that my role as both a writer and a teacher is not to proselytize, that my role is to guide and to question. That being said, I do try to live by example, which to me means showing my own vulnerabilities as a human being who’s trying to figure it all out. I find that students appreciate hearing about these experiences, that when I share my own frustrations, they feel more comfortable sharing their own and thereby figuring out ways to deal with them and get their words on the page.
- When writing what comes first for you: character or plot?
Usually character, but I also need to know what their core problems are, which informs the movement of the plot. Give me a character with a strong voice but who’s found herself in the midst of a complicated situation where she must be tested in subtle ways – it’s not always life or death, dragons or horribly evil villains – it’s the quiet pressures that intrigue me, the barriers that we set up against ourselves. I love every day heroes, and I think it’s important that we explore these stories, not necessarily as brochures (I hate explicitly moralistic novels), but as more as questions about what it means to live a life of meaning. I hope that my readers will ask the same questions that my characters must ask of themselves: What is courage? What is truth? What is trust? What is strength? I like to say that there’s an invisible question mark at the end of How to Be Brave, and as for The Best Possible Answer, well, even when you think you’ve found it, it can only lead to more questions. And I love that.
- If your books How To Be Brave and The Best Possible Answer where made into movies who would you cast as the leads?
For Georgia in HOW TO BE BRAVE, I already DID cast her! We filmed an interactive trailer at http://howtobebravebook.com/opening%20main.html where you get to help Georgia choose how she’s going to be brave. Casting the actor for Georgia was so much fun. Her name is Elena Ross, and she was spunky and fun and just a little bit scared but totally willing to try anything, just as I’d imagined Georgia would be.
If I were to choose a well-known actor for Georgia, it would be Elizabeth Gillies, who plays Jade West on the Disney Channel’s Victorious. (I watch it with my daughter and love it!)
For Viviana in THE BEST POSSIBLE ANSWER, I would cast Ariel Winter from Modern Family.
- What were some of your favorite writers growing up?
Oh wow: SO many. I LOVED to read. When I was in high school, I loved Tim O’Brien, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Douglas Coupland, Sylvia Plath, J.D. Salinger, Ana Castillo, Margaret Atwood. I was always, always reading.
- What is a typical writing day for you?
I don’t really have a typical writing day. I steal time. Sometimes I write only at night, after my daughter goes to sleep. Sometimes I am awake before dawn. Sometimes I write on my Notes app on my phone while my daughter is in voice lessons. I often use holidays and breaks to dive into my writing, during which I can spend weeks or months writing every day. And I love those times. I am able to immerse myself in the world of my story and fully commit to the experience of being a writer.
- What was it about Young Adult that made you want to write for that genre?
I started writing YA because I was a YA fan! I was teaching high school, and my students were introducing me to authors like Sherman Alexie, John Green, Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, and more. I think that the reason why so many adults (and of course, teens!) love to read YA is because the novels usually focus on a moment of intense change, and though we’ve been sold the story that once we hit a certain point, we are “adults,” the truth is we are continuously facing intense moments of change and growth throughout our lives. I think that YA novels are a way for readers of all ages to reflect on those experiences.
- So far you have written contemporary YA. Is there another genre you would want to write? Would you ever consider writing adult books?
Yes, and yes! I am currently working on a middle grade historical set in Ancient Greece, sort of a HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON with a female lead. And I may one day be interested in writing books for adults! Right now I love writing for teens, but anything’s possible!
- What are you working on next?
My third YA contemporary is complete and it just went out on submission to publishers, and now I’m working on the middle grade and brainstorming some other YA contemporaries.
Thank you so much for having me!