In debut middle-grade author Danielle Svetcov’s Parked, a friendship forms between two unlikely middle school characters and offers readers alternating and affecting perspectives on the social issues of poverty and homelessness. Readers will readily nibble away bit-by-bit at the story until they reach the coveted tender heart of things. We talked to Danielle about why she chose to write this particular story, as well as discussing some of her favorite children’s books, and also got some hot tips for aspiring authors.
Danielle, Parked is your debut novel, but you are in no means a newbie to the world of literature and writing. You have written for The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune Magazine, and others before becoming a literary agent. How did these combined experiences shape you and guide you into writing Parked?
Danielle Svetcov: You left off letters! The writing I love most and have done the longest is letter-writing: friendly and professional. Nothing is more satisfying to me than a well-written note (sent or received). I recently descended to the garage to dig through boxes of old letters, as I’ve been wracking my brain for things to say and show in my upcoming school visits for PARKED. I thought old letters might provide some damning but amusing evidence of my child mind. Instead, I discovered that I haven’t grown up at all! I still want the bottom bunk, the night-light on, and warm juice when I’m sick. But, really, to your question: those years of journalism taught me that there are no lone wolves. That is: no one writes by herself. No one goes untouched by the blood-red pen of the editor. Everyone gets sloppy and lost at some time and needs to be fished out of the deep end by someone(s) else. Journalism also taught me to just pick up the phone, cop to my stupidity and collect the answers required to tell the story. Representing writers marries my love of letter-writing with the phone chutzpah and the insistence on answers. Writing fiction is the photo-negative to all the above — when all the interviews and talk still leave me wondering…
Parked is full of friendship and food—two of your favorite things. A friendship forms between two unlikely middle school characters and offers readers alternating and affecting perspectives on the social issues of poverty and homelessness. Why did it feel important to you to write this particular story?
When I was a kid, the going adult message about haggard-looking people living on the streets or in vans or in their mom’s basements well-passed-the-age-of-40 was: “don’t look,” and, also, “that’ll never happen to you, so don’t worry.” I worried. I worried a lot. I didn’t understand why that would “never happen” to me. Why would it happen to anyone? The adult message gave me no peace. To achieve peace, the kid version of me needed more information. WAY more. Fast forward four decades. I’m walking in San Francisco’s Marina District. I’m a big walker. I like city hikes because I get to see how people live and snatch snippets of conversations I’d never otherwise hear. On city walks, I let myself wonder: how does the family in the brown house feel about living next to the family in the neon orange house; who gets the bedroom under the gable and does she ever pretend she’s in a scene from Little Women; and how hard do mom and dad work to live in a house that big, and do they ever resent it? So, I’m walking in the Marina District on a stunning spring day, asking these questions, when I pass a line of vans – beat-up vans with million-dollar views of the Golden Gate Bridge. I stop, turn 360 degrees, and come up with the idea of PARKED right then and there. Maybe. I don’t actually remember. I took that walk every other day for about 1.5 years, so it may be that the idea for PARKED actually came on slowly, after repeated sightings of the vans. Either way, the “I wonder” questions mounted. And the kid version of me who needed WAY more information about why living at the margins would never happen to me, started having a detailed conversation with the adult version of me on the subject. And then the conversation turned into a story. And the story turned into a book. A kid – me then, others now – needs a story to make sense of reality.
Jeanne Ann and Cal, both 12-year-olds, are living different lives. Cal resides with his mother, a successful vegetarian restaurateur, in a beautiful home. Jeanne Ann lives in an orange van with her mother, who has just quit her job and uprooted them both—they are not vegetarians. Knowing that their carrot-colored van is likely to get towed, Cal devotes his time to save Jeanne Ann. The only problem is that Jeanne Ann is determined not to be pitied and not to accept handouts. The dance between Cal’s kindness and Jeanne Ann’s dignity is so delicate, how did you find this balance?
Did I mention I took the walk above in 2003? And that I drafted PARKED on and off for 15 years? That’s how I found the balance. Tinkering. More tinkering. Chucking, slashing, starting in a new place. Tinkering some-more. In those first 12.5 years, only Jeanne Ann narrated. When I figured out Cal would need to narrate, too — so readers could see the things Jeanne Ann refused to show us about herself — that’s when the chemical balance between those two finally felt right.
Most of the novel takes place in the Marina District of San Francisco, a majestic area that catches the eye with its stunning views that combine with urban grit. Since you live across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco with your salami-loving family, was it a natural calling to set Parked in this area?
I set the book in SF when I still lived there (frankly, I still feel like I live there), and yes, the proximity of the vans to the Golden Gate Bridge, in the Marina, is essential to the story. I kept those vans almost exactly where I first saw them, just beyond Fort Mason’s parking lot. That part of the story is real. A dream view set against a difficult predicament. But that sort of dichotomy exists across the city and across the world.
An impatient chef once told you, “You talk too much, you move too slow!” while peeling onions in his restaurant kitchen. You’ve said this led you to double down on writing, which rewards thinking (and talking) and going slow. There is usually so much revision that goes into finishing a polished novel, Parked flows so smoothly that I can tell you genuinely have doubled down. Just like eating a perfectly steamed artichoke dipped in melted butter, I readily nibbled away bit-by-bit at the story until I reached the coveted tender heart of things. Can you share a bit about what your writing process looks like and possibly the most significant piece of writing advice you have received along the way?
I’m glad you say it flows smoothly, because only a few edits before the final edit, it moved like a lead-footed cab driver. My writing process sounds a lot like cheating, I fear: I open my calendar (paper) and flip the pages until I’ve reached ones with no commitments of any kind on them. Then I write “WRITE” in all the blank squares, usually stretching across three weeks or so. Then when I reach the first square with “WRITE” scrawled across it, I tell my clients I’m going on “vacation,” turn on Out-of-Office, and, except for feeding myself and family, hiking, and showering, I do nothing but write, about 10 hours a day. Then the “retreat” window closes, I go back to taking care of my clients, and I use nights to edit my stuff. Then the whole thing repeats itself a few months later. It’s not an ideal set-up for speedy creation, but it’s the set-up that works for me. The most significant piece of advice I’ve received: take yourself seriously, so everybody else will, too. And: give yourself 72 hours to wallow in harsh edits; then decide all the edits were a commitment to you, encouragement to keep going – and honor them by getting back to it.
Cal’s natural awkwardness and preference for expressing himself through art instead of words are just-right attributes for forming a believable relationship between the pair. There are also plenty of quirky and charismatic characters in the story ready to make an impact on young readers. How do you approach character development?
I love weirdos and all the ways weirdness leaks out (even from seemingly normal people). To me, the key to character development is finding a character’s central weirdness and running it through everything that character touches, sees, etc. The best is when one character’s particular weirdness is exactly what another character needs to survive.
Your love of literature is evident in both plot and character development. One look at the list of library books Jeanne Ann has checked out from the library tells readers that she is a book lover through-and-through. What are some of your favorite children’s books? Do you and Jeanne Ann share some of the same favorites?
Jeanne Ann’s book taste is a hybrid of my own and of someone more curious than I was at her age. I was a safe reader at 12. I read what the librarian told me I should. Jeanne Ann reads all the librarian recs, plus everything she stumbles upon as a curious, fearless library burrower. I wouldn’t have touched Dracula at age 12! Nor The Lottery. But Jeanne Ann punches above, below and at her weight. I loved putting Finance for Dummies and Pippi Longstocking on the same check-out slip! Some of my favorite books are on that list, of course. When You Reach Me. Counting by Sevens. I Capture the Castle (which straddles adult and kids lit, I’d say). The Rats of NIMH. Nooks & Crannies.
Parked will appeal to readers of books like Dan Gemeinhart’s The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise and Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree. What would you say are some other comparable titles?
I just read The Next Great Paulie Fink. Predicament-wise, it’s got nothing to do with PARKED, but the layering of odd-duck characters, and the slow melting of Caitlyn, the protagonist, into the fabric of that small town, reminded me of my story. I read Paulie with a 6th-grade book group I lead, and when I asked who wanted to go to the school depicted in the book, everyone raised a hand. The kids loved its weirdness, its smallness, its special effects (the gong, the goats). I like to imagine my readers will want to stand on the sidewalk with Jeanne and Cal, too, for the same reasons. It’s not the cleanest corner of the world and hard things are happening there, but it’s a place where kindness is clearly the dominant force at work.
Before wrapping up, I have to ask on behalf of aspiring authors who are currently seeking a literary agent, what are three things we can do to put our best foot forward?
1. Be real in your query letter. Remember, how much you love receiving personal letters!? Query letters are letters, too. Be yourself as you economically reveal who you are, what you’ve written, and why it’s good. 2. Have many people read your query and your manuscript/proposal before you share it with an agent. 3. Research your agent and reference something you learned about him/her in your letter.
Can you tell us one more thing we may not know about yourself, your writing style, or Parked?
When Kerry Sparks, my agent and talented colleague, sold PARKED to Dial, it was 135 pages. Over the next three years, it more than doubled in length. Jess Garrison, my editor, shepherded that expansion and all the good that came with it. She is the real deal, the editor that’s with you every step of the way. As an agent, I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of editors. I’ve never met one quite as committed as Jess.
Written by Danielle Svetcov
Publisher’s Synopsis: For fans of Rebecca Stead and Joan Bauer comes a scrappy, poignant, uplifting debut about family, friendship, and the importance of learning both how to offer help and how to accept it.
Jeanne Ann is smart, stubborn, living in an orange van, and determined to find a permanent address before the start of seventh grade.
Cal is tall, sensitive, living in a humongous house across the street, and determined to save her.
Jeanne Ann is roughly as enthusiastic about his help as she is about living in a van.
As the two form a tentative friendship that grows deeper over alternating chapters, they’re buoyed by a cast of complex, oddball characters, who let them down, lift them up, and leave you cheering. Debut novelist Danielle Svetcov shines a light on a big problem without a ready answer, nailing heartbreak and hope, and pulling it off with a humor and warmth that make the funny parts of Jeanne Ann and Cal’s story cathartic and the difficult parts all the more moving.
“[A] charismatic story ready to make an impact on young readers.” — The Children’s Book Review
“Absorbing and warmhearted…Readers will be transported” — Annie Barrows, author of the Ivy & Bean series
“Utterly of this moment” — Jack Cheng, author of See You in the Cosmos
Ages 10-14 | Publisher: Dial Books | February 4, 2020 | ISBN: 978-0399539039
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About the Author
An impatient chef once told author Danielle Svetcov, “You talk too much, you move too slow!” when she was peeling onions in his restaurant kitchen. He was right. So she doubled down on writing, which rewards thinking (and talking) and going slow. Danielle wrote for The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune Magazine, and others before becoming a literary agent and, now, an author. With her debut novel, Parked, she writes her way back to her first loves–food and friendship. You can find Danielle across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco with her salami-loving family.
For more information or to book Danielle for a school visit: https://www.daniellesvetcov.com/
This interview—Danielle Svetcov Discusses Parked—was conducted between Danielle Svetcov and Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Compassion, Friendship, and Homelessness & Poverty.