2015 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults: An Interview with Finalist Candace Fleming

the-family-romanov-candace-flemingThe YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a Nov. 1 – Oct. 31 publishing year. The award winner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

2015 Nonfiction Award finalist Candace Fleming is the author of over twenty works of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults, including The Great and Only Barnum (a 2010 YALSA Award for Excellence Finalist) and Our Eleanor (a 2006 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults). Her book, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia is a finalist for the 2015 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. Ms. Fleming graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her writing process and what inspired her to write about the tragic history of the Romanovs.

What’s a typical day in your life as a writer?
Most days, I wander down to my office – still in my pajamas and with coffee cup in hand – to spend the early morning hours writing.  What I mean is, I play around with language, make discoveries, cheer, hit dead ends, curse, spit and pull my hair out. I use wide-lined, loose-leaf paper and a blue Bic pen.  The smell of the cheap ink sends a signal to my brain that says, “We’re writing now.”  And because these tools aren’t precious, I feel free to play around, make mistakes, crunch up pages and try again.  Some of my best work comes from these early morning sessions.  When this creative spurt sputters to its end (usually within an hour or two) I get dressed, go to the gym, and then head home for breakfast and more office time.  This is when I tackle revisions, or do research.   I also catch up on all the business of writing –answering emails, writing blog posts, booking school visits etc.  I never work alone.  Daily witnesses to my efforts (and frustrations) are my cats, Oliver and Oreo, who curl up on a pillow beside the warm radiator and stare at me with bemused expressions… when they’re not napping.  Under my desk lies my dog, Oxford.  He lends moral support by occasionally licking one of my bare feet.  I’d like to tell you my tarantula, Betty, also aids in my writing process.  She doesn’t.  She just hunches down in her cage like a hairy lump.  By four o’clock my day is done, unless I’m crunching a deadline, or completely absorbed in my work.  I call to all the animals (except the spider) and close my office door.  Ah, the glamorous life of a children’s writer, huh?

ph_cfleming_headshot_2013_72dpi_185pxThe Family Romanov is a highly engaging, extremely well-researched book. What motivated you to write about the Romanovs, and in the course of your investigation, what were some of the things you were most surprised to discover?

I first read Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra the summer I turned thirteen, after pulling it off my mother’s bookshelf.
“You’re not going to like that,” she warned.  “It’s pretty dense history.”
She was right.  It was dense, but I loved it!  Imperial Russia and its demise,
captivated and intrigued me. And that sense of curiosity stuck with me over the years.  I devoured dozens of books on the topic.  I watched documentaries and went to museum exhibits. I came to adore Pasternak and Gorky. But I’d never considered writing about the Romanovs until about five year ago.  That’s when students in middle schools – mostly girls — suddenly and surprisingly started asking if I knew anything about Anastasia Romanov.  I would visit a school and during the question-and-answer period of my presentation a hand would wave wildly in the air.  No matter that I’d come to talk about people from American history.   Time and again I found myself speaking about Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter.  Why? I wondered. Why the sudden interest in Anastasia? I soon learned the answer. Many of those middle schoolers had seen the animated movie Anastasia.  They understood it was based on a nugget of truth.  But what was that truth?  They longed to know.  And they hoped I could tell them. Sadly, in the little time we had together, I really couldn’t… not enough anyway. And so I began to conceive of a book for them.  The Family Romanov is my answer to their questions.
Probably the most surprising and important discovery I made during my research for The Family Romanov came while visiting the Alexander Palace.  In none of my sources had anyone mentioned how close the palace sat to the front gate.  I’d assumed it was somewhere in the middle of the park, away from prying eyes.  Not so.  The tall, main gate with its golden, double headed eagle opens directly onto the palace’s circular driveway.  Every day the family could look through its iron grillwork to the town of Tsarskoe Selo just on the other side.  It gave me pause.  The family was so physically close to the Russian people.  They were just on the other side of the gate.  The Romanovs could look out their windows and see them.  They could hear their people’s voices from the palace balcony.  They could smell their cooking. They really weren’t as physically removed from the people as sources led me to believe.  It gave me pause.  Why, I wondered, didn’t the Romanovs feel more attachment to their subjects?  I mean, they were right there.  The question led me down entirely new paths of thought.   And it eventually led to the book’s inclusion of first hand worker and peasant accounts under the title, “Beyond the Palace Gates.”

Can you share what you enjoy most about writing nonfiction for young adults? Also, what are some of the most challenging aspects of writing for a YA audience?

I most enjoy the freedom of it.  YA is so liberating.  Teens are seekers of truth, and writing for them allows me to tell the whole story.  I don’t have to skirt around certain subjects – mass rebellion, mysticism, assassination.  I can write about the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows.  I can take on big subjects.

This is also the most challenging aspect of writing for YA audience.  I realize my readers have limited experience.  How much do they need to know to understand the story I want to tell?  What’s the best, most engaging way to tell that story?  And how can I help them make connections and parallels to turn-of-the-twentieth century Russia, a place that might as well be another planet to today’s readers?   Interestingly, these challenges are yet another reason I enjoy writing for young adults. I am, as the familiar saying goes, jumping off a cliff and building wings on the way down.  It’s both exhilarating and scary.

Do you have a special ritual or tradition to celebrate whenever a new book of yours is released?

A ritual or tradition?  Not really.  By the time the book comes out, I’m usually engrossed in my next project.   I do celebrate, though, when I send the final manuscript to my editor.  That calls for prosecco and chocolate cake – two of my favorite things.

Can you tell us what you are working on next?

I’m putting the final touches on a new biography about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody so most of my days have been spent in imaginary gallops across the Great Plains.  I’m also finishing up my first piece of science nonfiction about giant squid.  It’s a picture book, being illustrated by my partner, Eric Rohmann.  I’m also looking forward to creating a humorous series for middle graders, and beginning the research for my next YA nonfiction project, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Thank you, Candace!

–Lalitha Nataraj, currently reading The Dinner by Herman Koch