My friend Courtney Sheinmel is the next Judy Blume. The next, I tell you. In her second 'tween (ages 10-14) novel, POSITIVELY, Courtney tells the story of 13-year-old Emerson, "Emmy," her struggle being HIV positive, and transitioning after her mother's death due to AIDS. I was lucky enough to get an Advanced Reader Copy (because I'm an advanced reader). I devoured the whole thing within a couple of days and took it to my local independent bookstore planning to talk them into ordering it. Alas, they were already planning to, because Courtney's first book, MY SO-CALLED FAMILY did so well for them.
If anyone deserves success as a writer, it's Courtney, and if anyone "gets" 'tweens, it's Courtney. Friends, meet Courtney!
Q: Talk to us about being involved in the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. What prompted you to do a thing like that, and did you ever in a million years think you'd turn that experience into a book?
A: Thanks for asking about the Foundation (www.pedaids.org) – it’s an amazing organization, founded by the late Elizabeth Glaser and two of her closest friends. In 1991, when I was thirteen years old, I read an article about Elizabeth in People Magazine. She talked about being HIV-positive, losing her daughter to AIDS, and starting the Foundation to try and save her young son. I thought it was one of the bravest, saddest, most hopeful stories I had ever heard. There was an address at the end of the article, for readers who wanted to send donations to the Foundation, and I sent ten dollars from my babysitting money. A few weeks later, I received a thank you note.
Now, you have to understand, I was in eighth grade; I’d never made a charitable donation before, and I knew nothing of form letters and tax deductions. So when I got this letter on Foundation stationary, signed by Elizabeth Glaser, it made me feel incredibly special and connected to the cause. The next month, I sent another ten dollars. It became my monthly routine, and I actually did start to know a few people in the office – at least by phone and mail. A year later, I decided I wanted to work in the Foundation’s Los Angeles office for the summer. My family lived in New York, but my mother’s incredibly generous friend Samantha, who was based in LA, offered to let me stay with her. It was one of the best summers of my life.
Back then, I was always writing stories, and I did have ideas for writing a book about HIV/AIDS; but it was always a sibling or a friend of the narrator who was infected. I didn’t really consider writing a book from the perspective of someone who was HIV-positive herself until I started writing POSITIVELY.
Q: Being HIV-negative, what concerns did you have about "pulling it off?" What obstacles did you have to overcome, either literally or emotionally, and what was most helpful in overcoming them?
A: I was very nervous about doing right by this story. The narrator, Emerson, has to face life as an HIV-positive teen, and as a motherless daughter. Those things seemed so sacred and sometimes I felt like I didn’t have a right to tell the story. One night I had dinner with Elizabeth Glaser’s son, Jake – the boy she started the Foundation to save. He’s all grown up now, and a close friend. I was near tears and I told him I felt like a fraud. He encouraged me to keep going. He said he believed in me, and believed I could tell the right story. I will always be grateful to him for that.
Q: I love all the references to Sheryl Crow, tell us, why Sheryl Crow?
A: Simply because I love Sheryl Crow – I think she is a wonderful songwriter, and her voice is very comforting to me. When I was writing, I often had her music on in the background, playing in a loop. There was one line in particular that kept coming back to me, because it seemed to fit Emerson so well: What is yours you’ll never lose, and what’s ahead may shine. It’s from the song “Diamond Road,” and it’s now the epigraph of the book.
Q: What are your favorite things about the book?
A: I often name characters after people I know. It’s one of my favorite parts of writing, and when I reread my work, I love seeing my friends’ names – it’s like proof that the book in my hands is actually mine. The names of my friend Michelle O'Neil's kids are in POSITIVELY – in fact, the boy named Seth says a few things that the real-life Seth has said.
There are also characters named after my stepsister, her husband and kids. One day I called my niece, Nicki, and told her that I’d named Emerson’s best friend – a very pivotal character – after her. I thought she would be thrilled. Instead she asked if I could name a character after her dog, Dakota, who had just died. I hadn’t been planning to put any dogs in the book. Nicki was really disappointed, so I agreed to write in a dead dog named Dakota, and it ended up being part of one of my favorite scenes. Thank you, Nicki!
Q: The opening line is fantastic, (“When my mother died I imagined God was thinking, One down, and one to go.”) When did it come to you, and when did you know that would be your beginning?
A: I think I just turned on the computer and started writing, and that was the first thing that came out. It has always been the opening line, even though the book went through a lot of editing.
Q: Why do you write 'tween fiction, and are you considering adult fiction? Memoir? Any other genre?
A: When I was in college, I wrote mostly memoir and I just assumed that my first book (if I ever wrote one) would be in that genre. Then I graduated, went to law school, and started working as a litigation associate. One night I was having dinner with my friend Allyson, telling her about how I really wanted to be a writer instead of a lawyer. I’ll never forget it: I was eating a spicy tuna roll at Josie’s on the eastside, and the idea for an eleven-year-old character just came to me – the character that ended up being the narrator of my book SINCERELY, SOPHIE (out in June 2010 from Simon & Schuster). That’s when I started seriously thinking about kidlit, and seriously writing. I tell Allyson that having dinner with her changed my life.
I would like to write in another genre, someday – I’d love to write a memoir, and write adult fiction. But for now I’m in the kidlit world, and I really love it here.
Q: What advice to you have to writers, young and old?
A: Read a lot. Write a lot – write what you know, write things that interest YOU, and not what other people are telling you to write. And be persevering.
POSITIVELY is in stores TODAY, or you can order here.
For a preview of the book, click here.