Where did you get the idea?
Sometimes ideas for books come from my personal life. My mother died when I was ten years old. A few years after her death, my father began getting letters (real letters—there was no e-mail back then) from a mysterious woman in San Francisco. Secretly, I read the letters and was distressed to find out that they were love letters! My dad had met a woman at a conference, and it seemed to be love at first sight.
I didn’t like the idea of my father re-marrying, but I kept my feelings and fears inside. Our family didn’t talk openly about personal issues—lots of families didn’t! I wanted to write to this woman and tell her not to bother my dad, but I didn’t dare.
After about a year, my father married her. As you can imagine, my relationship with my new stepmother was difficult at first. We eventually became friends, but it took a long time. After my father died, I decided to write a book about a girl in the same situation who has the chutzpah to do what I didn’t: to write back!
When I was done, I shared my manuscript with my stepmother. She loved it and cried. We both admitted to each other that we wished we had communicated more openly in those early years. She died before the book was published.
Sometimes authors write the books they wish they had lived.
How much of the book is based on your personal experience?
Although I based the book on my experience of reading my father’s secret love letters, Frankie Wallop is not me. A work of fiction is made up of bits and pieces of an author’s world, but it is a new invention. Here are some of the ways Frankie and I are different and some of the things we share in common:
- I play the dulcimer now. But I didn’t grow up playing the dulcimer like Frankie.
- I am the baby of four girls whereas Frankie is the oldest and has two brothers.
- My father’s secret love was a kindergarten teacher, not a zookeeper.
- I have kept a journal since the age of seven. Writing in my diary was an important way for me to express my feelings.
- I had two cooking fires in my house, but nothing was destroyed.
- Like Frankie, I auditioned for The Miracle Worker. I wanted to play Helen and didn’t make it. My interest in Helen Keller came much earlier than Frankie’s. We had a family friend who was blind. I learned Braille from her when I was in the second grade.
- I grew up in Illinois, not Indiana. But I did go to college in Bloomington, Indiana.
Naming My Characters
I often try to choose a name that reflects something about the character. I chose Frankie Wallop because frank is a synonym for honest and wallop is a synonym for a big lie. Frankie Wallop is a basically very honest girl who gets in trouble by telling big lies. She is a strong character, and I liked the strong sound of her name.
I nicknamed Skip because, as the middle child, he gets skipped over. He is also quick, which also goes well with the verb skip. Nutter got his name because I wanted something that indicated his role in Frankie’s life as a cute little clown.
Sometimes, I name my characters because they remind me of people I’ve met. I had to give my guitar-playing troubled heartthrob the name Johnny because when I was Frankie’s age, I once met such a boy at a party. He played a song on the guitar that blew me away. I was too shy to talk to him at the party, and I never saw him again in my life. But I never forgot how interesting he seemed.
Questions for Discussion
- Sometimes Frankie tells lies. In what other ways is she dishonest? In what ways is she honest? Talk about other characters in the book and in what ways they are either honest or dishonest.
- When does Frankie begin to like Ayanna? Why?
- Ayanna teaches Frankie about the behavior of naked mole-rats. What else does she teach Frankie?
- How does the father change? What forces him to change?
Springboards for your own writing
- Write a story about a lie that gets your main character in trouble.
- Create two characters who have a hard time communicating with each other in person.
- Write a story that is entirely made up of letters that they write to each other. (Note: a story that is told in the form of letters is called an epistolary novel.)