I’m so excited to bring you the next installment of the Student-Author Interview Series! This time, three delightful sixth graders and two delightful seventh graders have interviewed the similarly delightful Lisa Graff, who has even shared some special bonus content with us! Poli, Sophia, Sydney, Dasha, and MaryElizabeth all read Lisa’s charming novel A Tangle of Knots, which is set in a slightly magical world where people have special Talents. It features an orphan girl named Cady with a Talent for baking people’s perfect cakes; a powder blue suitcase; a lost luggage emporium; and so much more. If you haven’t read it yet, it comes highly recommended (both by me and by these enthusiastic students)!
First, here’s what they love most about A TANGLE OF KNOTS:
Poli: I liked that at first everything was a bit confusing and then at the end it all fell together. I liked Cady the best because she was sweet and gave off a “main character” vibe.
Sophia: I liked how it was from all of the different character’s perspectives.
Dasha: I liked that Cady’s Talent was making perfect cakes. It’s so random and happy. I also like the old man with the knot-tying Talent. I liked how at the beginning it was about this guy who seemed like he had a bright future, and then he ended up being the villain. I also like how the bad guy used his favorite Talent of floating all the time.
MaryElizabeth: I liked how everything came together and the diversity of people’s Talents—how they were all random, like spitting and knot tying. I liked the cleverness of the story and the happy tone. I really liked the character of Toby.
Now, here’s what they wanted to know about the book:
Poli: If you lived in that world, what would your Talent be?
I could only wish it would be a tasty Talent, like Cady’s Talent for cake-baking. But more likely I’d end up with something boring but practical, like closet-organizing (already a specialty of mine—at least it comes in handy!).
MaryElizabeth: What would be your perfect cake? Also, how old were you when you first started baking cakes? Was your first cake a disaster, or did it turn out well?
My perfect cake would definitely be a lemon layer cake. I have a recipe for one with black tea frosting, and it takes forever to make, but it is worth the effort. (This may say that I, too, am sweet and sour and a lot of work, but I’m fine with that!)
I probably first got the baking bug when I was seven years old. In my family we have a tradition where, when a child turns seven, he or she has an enormous party with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and there is a seven layer cake, where every layer is a different color. No one seems to know where this tradition originated, but my family has been doing it for as long as anyone can remember, and it is a lot of fun.
When I first started baking on my own, I definitely had a lot of disasters. Even trying out recipes for A Tangle of Knots, I made several cakes that didn’t work out at all, so obviously those recipes didn’t end up in the book! Baking can be a challenge, but I think that’s what I enjoy about it.
Dasha and Sophia: How did you come up with all of the Talents that seem so random? And how did you come up with the other random details, like the powder blue suitcase, ice cubes, and peanut butter?
All of the Talents and details really just came from brainstorming. I kept a notebook when I was first working on this book, before I even wrote down a single word of the story, and I scribbled down every single idea I had about what might go in the story (whether I thought it was a particularly good idea or not).
I went through the notebook several times and crossed out ideas I didn’t like anymore, and added new ones in the margins, and asked questions about the ones that stuck, and then tried to answer them. I filled up an entire notebook this way—and that was before I even began to outline! This was definitely a change from the typical way I write. Usually I like to dive headfirst into a novel before I have any idea of what is going to happen, and learn about the characters and their stories by writing through them. But I knew that in this book, which I wanted to be so full of intricate, connecting details, I was going to have to decide on the majority of things before I started writing. It was a big challenge for me.
Poli: How did you come up with the characters’ names?
This came from brainstorming too. It’s interesting to me to look back at my notebook, because I can see that most of the characters’ names I decided on right away, but a few of them, like Miss Mallory, had very different names (Delania Crisp? What was I thinking??)
I should also say that in my original outline, and for the first several drafts, there were two big characters that I eventually ended up cutting out of the story completely. The first was a fourth Asher sibling (Asher Arnold Asher IV), who had a Talent for playing baseball but desperately wanted to play the oboe instead, and a janitor (named “Mr. Epsilon” in my notes, but later called Juan), who had a Talent for fixing U-bend pipes, and was meant to be a love interest for Miss Mallory. What became apparent pretty quickly, though, was that I was simply dealing with too many characters and storylines, so these ones got cut—and I could tell they didn’t need to be there, because once I removed them, I didn’t miss them at all.
MaryElizabeth: What would you tell people who say they don’t have any Talents? What advice would you give them?
This was something I wanted to talk about in my book. I think there are plenty of us who feel like we’ll never be the best in the world at anything—and that’s perfectly fine, in my opinion. You don’t need to be the best in the world at anything to be a good person, or interesting, and being good at something doesn’t mean you’ll even necessarily enjoy doing that thing. Part of the reason I think I love writing so much is that I never felt like it came particularly easily to me—it was always something I had to work at, and because of that it still feels so satisfying when I hit upon an idea or sentence that I’m particularly proud of. So I guess my best advice, if you feel you are a person with no special Talents, is to find what you love, regardless of how amazing you are at it, and do it with gusto.
Sydney: What inspired you to write this book?
Several years ago I watched a television special about the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where they buy unclaimed luggage from airports and bus depots and then sell the contents to the public. I thought this was the coolest, craziest thing I’d ever heard of, and I knew that I wanted to one day set a book in such a place. That idea rolled around in my brain for about three years, until I finally figured out the key to unlocking the story that should go with it—I’d had an image of a girl, opening a suitcase, searching for something inside, but all of a sudden I realized that the story would be so much better if there was something inside the suitcase searching for her. The story all fell into place around that one idea.
Sophia: How long did it take you to write the book?
Oddly enough, this was one of my quickest books that I’ve written to date. I spent three months brainstorming and outlining, then probably three months writing the rough draft, and then another two or three revising. Usually my books take anywhere from one year to two.
Dasha: How did the cover come to be?
The cover, which I absolutely love, was all the brainchild of the designer and editor at my publishing house. They came up with the general idea for it, and then suggested a few illustrators whose work they thought might be a good fit for it (I got to weigh in at this stage and help pick the artist). I think the process was fairly simple for this book—sometimes these things can be pretty painful!
And last but not least, here’s what the girls wanted to know about Lisa in middle school:
MaryElizabeth: What was your favorite subject?
In middle school my favorite subjects were art and chorus. I really liked science too (and I still do!). I enjoyed reading a lot, but I never felt like I was a particularly amazing writer when I was a kid.
Sydney: Do you remember anything you wrote when you were in middle school, and if you do can you tell us about it? Have you ever taken an idea you had in middle school and turned it into a book, or would you?
I wrote for fun a little bit when I was in middle school, but I didn’t start taking it more seriously until I joined my school’s writing club my freshman year of high school. When I was in middle school I thought it was lots of fun to write fake diaries from fictional characters’ points of view, and to illustrate them. That might be the thing I wrote the most of. I’ve never turned one of my childhood ideas into a book so far, but I have a picture book that’s been rolling around in my brain since I was fourteen—maybe one of these days I will finally figure out how to make it work!
My all-time favorite book is actually one I first read in middle school: To Kill a Mockingbird. I also really loved The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. And I was obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club books when I was in middle school too. I must’ve owned about sixty of them! I couldn’t get enough.
Sophia: What did you want to be when you grew up? When did you start wanting to be a writer—was it before middle school or after?
I decided I was going to be a pediatrician when I was four years old (no joke!), and I still thought that’s what I was going to do until my freshman year of college, when I realized I enjoyed writing more than anything else. It was very hard for me to let go of that childhood dream, because it was the thing I’d wanted to do for so long, but in the end I knew that there was another dream I hadn’t really considered before, which was going to make me even happier. Once I made the decision to pursue writing, I never once regretted it.
Thank you, Lisa, for answering our questions and sharing your adorable photo and fascinating notebook pages with us! We can’t wait until your next novel, ABSOLUTELY ALMOST, comes out in June!
Cover Images from Goodreads.