Author Feature: Debby Waldman

Miriam's Secret
Miriam’s Secret: In 1930 nine-year-old Miriam travels by train from Brooklyn to her grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. Her grandparents are kind, generous people, but they aren’t exactly ideal playmates for a lonely girl. When Miriam is not doing homework in the kitchen with Bubby or helping prepare meals for the migrant workers that Zayde hires to help out on the farm, she plays with the barn kittens born just before she arrived. Those kittens are her only friends, until the day Miriam discovers a young girl hiding in the barn. Cissy and her brother, Joe, who’s one of Zayde’s farm hands, are on the run from an abusive uncle back in Mississippi. Miriam and Cissy hit it off immediately. But their friendship is tested when Miriam is forced to choose between keeping a promise and doing the right thing.

What planning and research did you do for you book?

The story is set on a fictional version of the farm where my mother grew up, with three older sisters and an older brother. I interviewed my mom and my aunts (my uncle died in 1984) and I visited the farm again (my uncle’s widow was still living there when I wrote the book) and wandered around a bit and took pictures.  I also interviewed a family friend who is a little younger than Miriam would have been, but also grew up in a very Jewish part of New York, and I used some of her stories and experiences. When it came time to flesh out the character of Cissy, the runaway girl Miriam finds hiding in the hayloft, I spent a lot of time listening to recordings of sharecroppers and freed slaves, to get an idea of their speech patterns, the kinds of food they ate, and issues that were important to them. It was very helpful and also extremely interesting to track down the recordings. (It turns out they exist on a variety of web sites, most connected to universities in the southern US.) To learn more about trains in the first part of the 20th century, I contacted the National Train Museum and then the New York State Central System Historical Society, the latter of which maintains all sorts of data about the New York Central Line. To learn more about hobos, I searched the internet and spent a lot of time looking at their “codes,” which were basically stick figure drawings (something that I, a very rudimentary artist, can relate to).

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

Don’t give up. Write every day. (I don’t write every day—I often am editing, so I can’t—but I don’t give up, either.)

What’s in your to-be-read pile? What makes you want to read those books?

Wonder by RJ Palacio, because a Facebook Friend posted the movie trailer and it looks amazing. New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, because I like her writing and I heard her talking about it on the radio and it sounds interesting. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, because I read something about it and it sounds incredible. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, for the same reason. Colour Bar by Susan Williams, because I loved the movie A United Kingdom on which the book is based. I often want to read the book after I see the movie, to find out what was left out. (But to be honest, usually I’ve read the book before the movie comes out, because I read a lot. I try to read at least one book a week.)

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Do you listen to audio books? Why or why not? What do you listen to?

I listen to audio books when I go on long road trips by myself. The last two that had any impact on me were A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout, and Run by Ann Patchett. It was excellent. I’m a serious Ann Patchett fan.

What book do you think you learned the most from reading or admire most? Tell us why!

The Outsiders by SE Hinton and Night by Elie Wiesel. They are such slender little books and they pack such an emotional wallop. They are stories that have stayed with me since I read them when I was 12 years old. The characters and settings were so real to me in both books. Those are the books that made me want to be a writer.

What’s your favorite movie that was adapted from a book or short story?

Ordinary People. I loved that movie, and though I did not realize it at the time, I loved it in large part because it spoke to experiences I had had that I hadn’t yet processed and didn’t fully understand. Watching it now, knowing what I do, I understand why it’s the first movie that ever made me cry. More recently, I’d say Hidden Figures. I found the movie so inspiring, and then I read the book and was blown away at how much more of a story there is than what was in the movie. The book goes into such depth about the times in which those women lived.

Do you listen to music when you write? Why or why not? What do you listen to?

I never listen to music when I write! I cannot concentrate on anything other than the music when music is playing. I don’t know if it’s that I have undiagnosed ADHD or that I am so attuned to music, but if there is music playing, I become all consumed by it. And if it’s music with lyrics, even more so. Too much cognitive dissonance. I don’t need complete quiet – I came of writing age in newsrooms, which are notoriously busy places, and back in the day nobody had earbuds to block out the noise – but I prefer quiet or nature noises (which, at the time I am writing this, include construction sounds).

Do you have a quote you like to live by?

“Asked by his rabbi for the secret to a long and successful marriage, the 80-year-old man about to celebrate his 55th wedding anniversary said, ‘Every morning I look in the mirror and say, You’re no bargain either.’” Words to live by, I say.

What’s your favorite city you’ve lived in! Tell us why!

London, England. I lived there between January and the end of April 1981, when I was in my junior year at Syracuse University. I love the history, the parks, the museums, the different neighborhoods, the accents, the multiculturalism. I had some incredible experiences there, among them volunteering at a riding stable in Grosvenor Crescent Mews, near Hyde Park. One day a week our stable provided ponies for a riding program for children with disabilities. The riding program was held at the indoor riding ring at Buckingham Palace. Sometimes I watched the kids ride, sometimes I helped, and sometimes I went out and explored the mews, which is how I got to 1) visit the Queen’s carriage horses and 2) see the Queen’s carriages up close and 3) hold a buggy whip while the Queen’s minions were scrubbing down a carriage in anticipation of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana a few months down the road. All in all, it was a pretty amazing time for a 20-year-old American girl in London.

Miriam’s Secret is available here!

Waldman, Debby_07-26-17

Debby Waldman‘s is the author of a number of children’s books based on Jewish folktales, including A Sack Full of Feathers, which was named a 2007 Best Book for Kids and Teens by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and Clever Rachel, declared by Resource Links to be one of the year’s best for 2009. She is also the co-author of two books for parents of children who are hard of hearing. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta. More information, visit www.debbywaldman.com.

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