Audrey Vernick is a wonderfully inventive and funny author of many books for all ages including her latest So You Want to be a Rock Star and Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All Brother Team coming in April. Vernick also garnered rave reviews for her touching middle grade novel Water Balloon. She makes her home in New Jersey with her husband, two children and their devoted dogs. Listen in as we discuss baseball legends, the merits of blogging, elusive research subjects, punk rock, and Harriet the Spy—all in one interview.
Nicki Richesin: Thank you for chatting with TCBR. Unlike many authors, you didn’t grow up wanting to become one. When did you know writing was a profession you wanted to pursue?
Audrey Vernick: Right about now.
It’s a difficult step, defining writing as one’s profession. There’s an implication that one could support oneself and I have not yet reached that point. But I’m working toward it.
If I had to point to one moment when I felt nearly comfortable describing myself as a writer when asked, it would be when I won my first fiction fellowship from the New Jersey Arts Council in 1999. It was a wonderfully surprising and validating experience.
NR: You’ve written two terrific books about baseball, your forthcoming (this April), Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All Brother Team and She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story. Are you a huge baseball fan? What inspired you to write these particular books?
AV: I am a big baseball fan and think I’ve enjoyed absurdly good fortune in being able to publish two books on the subject. (I snuck it into my middle-grade novel, too.)
I have to admit, though, that for those two picture books, it was more the personal story than the baseball that drew me in.
Effa Manley was a name I had never heard before the year she was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I started to read about her, I learned that she was a force of nature—a civil rights activist, a woman insinuating herself into the worlds of baseball and business in the 1930s, a lobbyist—someone who repeatedly fought injustice and took action to effect change.
The Acerra brothers— twelve brothers who formed their own baseball team? Seriously? I think I’d have interviewed the brothers (three of the twelve are alive) even if there had been no chance of publishing a book. Their stories and their spirit are unforgettable; working on this book has been an incredible experience.
NR: You maintain a very entertaining blog called Literary Friendships. Why did you initially decide to blog and has connecting with your readers, in this way, influenced your writing?
AV: To be candid, I was pretty much told I had to blog. The first question asked by publicists at the houses publishing my books was, “Do you have a blog?” The social media consultant who works with my literary agency strongly suggested it was pretty much a necessity at this point. She and I brainstormed an umbrella big enough to cover all my interests. We riffed for a while on friendships; I was thinking ahead to a book being published next year—a kind of spoof on the spate of interspecies friendship picture books that have come out in the past decade. But once we hit on literary friendships, we kind of knew we had it.
I really enjoy shining a light on other writers, illustrators, publishing industry people and teachers. But what I look forward to most is finding out which book or character my subjects loved as young readers. I have been surprised by how many cite Roald Dahl, as he’s someone whose books were never on my radar or my must-read list (except his phenomenal autobiography, Boy).
As for the way the blog connects me with my readers, I always feel astonished and touched by the connection when anyone leaves a thoughtful comment.
NR : You co-wrote Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship with your sister Ellen Glassman Gidaro. What was it like working with your sibling on a book? I understand you interviewed African American folk artist Tim Brown via correspondence to his home in Mississippi. What a remarkably old-fashioned way to conduct research on a subject, but I suspect it may have impeded your progress. Do you hope to meet Tim one day?
AV: When we discovered Tim Brown’s art and received the approval of his business manager to work on a book, we imagined ourselves traveling to Mississippi to interview him. It came as a big surprise to learn that Tim hired a business manager in the first place because he didn’t want to deal with interviews or any kind of unsolicited attention.
We emailed our questions to the business manager, and he mailed them to Tim. Tim printed his answers—in pencil, I believe—and mailed them to the business manager who usually scanned them and emailed them to us (I think he may have mailed some). As you might imagine, it was not a swift process.
But looking back, it was perfect. Tim’s artwork is primitive and a little raw. And his straightforward answers helped us find the voice for the book.
Ellen and I got stuck a few times. And it was really nice having someone there to work through those moments. Especially someone whose brain is almost identical to mine.
NR: So young readers everywhere will be ready to rock when they pick up a copy of So You Want to be a Rock Star. Your book is playful and fun and encourages kids to dream of one day being a star. Did you dream of becoming a rock star when you were child? Who were your legendary rock heroes?
As for dreams, since you asked: I had a very memorable dream decades ago that I was a member of the Clash, and that we, the Clash, were famous for standing on a corner in Greenwich Village, repeatedly singing the song “Death or Glory” while people threw money at us. I was crestfallen to wake up.
My real-world rock hero was and is Bruce Springsteen. I’d have liked to be in The Replacements, too, though. (Even though I think it would have been a little scary to be in the Replacements.)
I knew rock stardom was never in my future, but I did get my high school boyfriend, a bassist, to agree to let me play tambourine in his band if they made it. (They didn’t.)
NR: Your debut novel Water Balloon has been hailed by the critics. Congratulations on all of your wonderful reviews. How did you discover Marley’s vulnerable thirteen-year-old voice?
AV: That voice was right there, waiting for me. My big fear is that it may just be my voice, and that any novel I write—every novel I write—will sound like Marley.
NR: You’ve said your favorite book as a kid was Harriet the Spy. If you could ask the author Louise Fitzhugh anything about her book or life as an author, what would you ask her?
AV: I love this question. I think a lot about how awful it was when Harriet’s classmates and friends stole her notebook and read it and heard/read some mean-spirited things Harriet had written about them, and the way her beloved Ole Golly kind of slipped out of Harriet’s life. As a writer, my biggest challenge is letting my characters suffer; I protect them too much. I’m very curious if Louise Fitzhugh tried to write the novel another way, if a draft existed in which Harriet didn’t suffer those awful fates. I’d also like to know how she survived letting Harriet feel so alone.
NR: I know Bogart & Vinnie: A Completely Made-Up Story of True Friendship comes out next year. What are you working on now?
AV: A mishmash of stuff. I’m revising a picture book about an unlikely friendship between a monster and a bird. I’ve just stuffed a new novel-in-progress in the proverbial drawer and am smitten with an idea for another novel, a younger one, with an 11-year old protagonist. That one’s forming in my brain right now. I love this stage—before anything goes wrong.
I have a handful of picture book ideas that I’m toying around with. And I’m working up my nerve to write to two baseball legends to see if maybe they’d like to work on a picture book with me.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Daily Candy, and Babble.