Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Author Interview: Audrey Vernick discusses Screaming at the Ump

I don't read a ton of middle grade (or books about sports for that matter), but I was intrigued by the journalism angle in SCREAMING AT THE UMP and would definitely recommend this to budding reporters. Casey has grown up surrounded by baseball because his father runs a school for umpires. But he himself doesn't want to be an ump, or even a player. He wants to write about baseball, and now that he's starting middle school, he'll finally have the chance to be on a newspaper staff. 

Only when he gets there, he finds out that 6th graders never get to write -- they have to pay their dues by selling ad space. But what if the story of the century just happens to fall in his lap? What if a disgraced former major league player just happens to be at his father's ump school? In the course of pursuing his big break, Casey learns a lot about being objective and the importance of second chances.
I have the pleasure of having Author Audrey Vernick on the blog today to answer some questions about her book and baseball. My readers might know Audrey as the fabulous writer behind the Buffalo picture books that Daniel had the honor of illustrating. Welcome Audrey!

You tackle a lot of subjects in SCREAMING AT THE UMP: divorce, umpiring, journalism. Which aspects of the story came first and how did you manage to make all the threads come together in such a meaningful way?

Umpiring came first. I struggle with plot, so thought it would be wise to come up with a hooky something that set my book apart before I started writing it. I stumbled upon the idea of umpire school one night when watching baseball playoffs on TV. The umps were making lots of bad calls and I realized that I considered myself a big baseball fan but had no idea how one became a professional umpire. One google search later, I learned about the two umpire schools in Florida. I decided to create a third and put it in New Jersey, where I live. I started writing the book with that setting and characters other than the ones now in it. Before long, I realized those folks didn't belong anywhere near an umpire school and that's when Casey and Zeke emerged.

Journalism was a very minor part of earlier drafts of this book but as the parallels between it and umpiring kept showing up--impartiality being key among them--I had to take notice. Also, in early drafts, Casey didn't have any real drive and while I know many, many real-world children who do not have grand ambitions, I don't know of many book-world children who don't. It's not my favorite part of writing novels, the whole "what does the character want" part. In the books I love, the answer would often be "for things to stay exactly as they are." That was surely what it was for Marley, the main character in my first novel. But editors really like driven characters.

As for divorce...I've had lots of kids in the past month ask me why both of my novels feature divorced families and I hope that the next time I'm asked, I will do better than stammer. The answer, at least in part, is that interesting upper middle grade characters need a fair amount of independence to be able to do things interesting enough to be worthy of a book. I didn't want to orphan my characters, so I did the next best thing. My, that sounds awful.

Also, it's a reality so many kids deal with, nothing exotic. The sadness that comes with it isn't always given its due. My characters have both felt that sadness very deeply, in ways that I hope seem authentic to readers.

As for the threads coming together, all I have to say about that is: THEY DID?

Ha! Well, I thought so! I loved the whole idea of "You suck, Ump!" day. Does such a thing exist in real life? Is there any group other than umps that you wish there was a "You suck!" day for?

I don't think such a thing does exist. And yes, there are many, many, many groups other than umps that I wish there was a "you suck" day for. If forced to choose one, I would choose the people I call the my son Jordan people. I promise you: You know these people. Let's say you're at back-to-school night and the speaker has given a general introduction and asks if there any questions, stressing that all questions should be of a general nature, not questions specific to any family. The my son Jordan people are always called upon and begin with, "My son Jordan is gifted in math has been reading four grades above his level since preschool. My older son, too. What can you offer to challenge someone as supremely gifted as my son Jordan?"

Sadly, the realm of the my son Jordan people extends far beyond parental bragging at local schools to self-aggrandizement as audience member. I attend a fabulous event every October--The New Yorker Festival in NYC--and the my son Jordan people, also warned (most hilariously by Andy Borowitz when he's the moderator) that questions should not be opportunities to share the wonders of oneself with the audience but opportunities to ask actual questions of the speakers. But the my son Jordan people cannot help themselves. They give a three-paragraph introduction about their own unique wonderfulness, and then tack on a semi-question at the end.

So please, townsfolk. Gather with me and let's let them hear it loud and clear:


Oh gosh, yes. Those people do need a you suck day. You're well known for your love of baseball. What are your go-to books about the sport?

There are so many fantastic baseball picture books! I love Phil Bildner's The Unforgettable Season. and every baseball book by Matt Tavares and Jonah Winter. Though I reserve the right to not love Matt's forthcoming book about Pedro Martinez. (You do not grab an old man's head and shove him to the ground: words to live by, Pedro.) And Teammates by Peter Golenbock is the book that my son needed to hear every night for a long period of time, so that has a place in my heart. As for adult reading, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach was a great read.

Thanks Audrey!

Find out more about Audrey and her books at her website. Add SCREAMING AT THE UMP to Goodreads.

FTC disclosure: Bought

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