Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Blog interview: Heidi Willis!

Hi guys!

Today we've got the lovely and talented Heidi Willis, here to have an interview on my blog! *golf claps*

I've known Heidi a long time. Somehow she was one of the first blogs I found, and one of the first commenters on *my* blog (when I got the guts to start it) and has been a helpful and friendly influence in my life ever since then! Happy day!

And now sister's got a brand new book! But I'll let you read for yourself. :-)

All that stands between her daughter’s life and death is a tenth grade education, a zealous group of Baptist ladies, and 1.8 million Google hits.

If faith is all her daughter needs to be cured, Babs is sure the church and her family have more than enough. When twelve-year-old Ashley falls into a coma and is diagnosed with diabetes, everyone in their small Texas town deals with it the way they deal with everything else: food, friendship and prayer. But when Ashley develops a rare and deadly allergy to insulin – the only medicine that can keep her alive – Babs turns to the Internet and science instead of friends and God to find the cure the doctors say isn't there. What she discovers is an answer no one wants to hear: a risky stem cell operation that pits her against her husband, her faith, and the conservative church that’s been their biggest support.

Here's where you get to learn more about Heidi.

How long have you been writing?

I remember writing my first book in school when I was in second grade. I was so proud of that book. We wrote it, then revised it, then rewrote it in our best writing, colored a cover on cardboard and laminated it like a real book cover and then bound the whole thing. In the About the Author I wrote that I didn't want to be a writer because I was going to be a singer when I grew up. I love that book.

In middle school I started writing novels on my own, but they never made it past 50 pages or so, and I didn't attempt more stories until college. I wrote short stories there and took several graduate level fiction writing classes as a senior, but then I graduated, got a job teaching, and between grading essays and planning lessons, I didn't get back to it until several years ago.

I'd say I've been seriously writing, trying it on as a career, for three years.

Even though you suffer from diabetes as well, your book required a significant amount of research to complete. You had to become an expert on all of the complications of diabetes and their specific treatments, as well as someone who is well versed in stem cell research and its applications to diabetes. How did you go about conducting your research? Did it take up a lot of time? Was most of the information accessible on the internet, or did you have to interview specialists or go to medical journals? Would you write a book again that required a significant amount of research?

Actually, researching about stem cell therapies was what brought about the idea for the book. During the presidential primaries I'd received several pamphlets showing where each of the candidates stood on various issues. One block was for stem cell research, and it included both embryonic and adult. Across all parties, every one of the candidates supported adult stem cell research, and that stumped me. For one, I'd never even heard of it, and for two, weren't the more conservative candidates supposed to oppose stem cells?

I started out googling adult stem cell research, and came across a huge amount of info on the internet about it that completely floored me. Body parts were being regrown. Spinal injuries were healed and paralyzed people were walking. It just went on and on. I couldn't stop reading. And suddenly, in the middle of one of the articles, I thought, "Wow. This would make a great book."

At that point I started bookmarking all the websites I'd read, and began plotting the idea of how to turn this into a story. When the story started fleshing itself out, I knew how to be more focused in my research.

That preliminary research was mostly news articles, but as I outlined and wrote, I focused more on medical journals, most of which were online. I went to diabetes forums and asked parents for their personal experiences on specific things, like when their children were diagnosed. Those parents were incredible. They wrote long, beautiful, heartrending emails, and nearly every one I took something from to incorporate in the story.

In the midst of trying to sort out why a young diabetic would have the critical need to undergo stem cell therapy, I came across a blog from a young woman who is allergic to diabetes. That blog provided me with more personal story than I could ever have gained from a medical journal or newspaper article.

It did take a big chunk of time. After I had enough information to lay out the story, I wrote and researched specific needs as I came to them. Some days there was more research than writing, but it helped that I had a good personal understanding of diabetes myself, and so I could ask myself the very specific questions that narrowed down the research significantly.

It never felt burdensome to research. I was so passionate about it that the research was as much fun as writing. I don't think I could do that kind of research on something I didn't care so much about. And the fact that I have diabetes gave me a huge foundation to build on. I've thought about other plotlines for books that would require research and when I start researching my eyes glaze over. I can tell quickly that if it bores me, I won't be able to write about it engagingly for others.

Was there a particular reason why you chose Texas as the home state for your heroine and her family? I know you lived there for a while yourself. Did that have anything to do with it?

Having lived in Texas made a huge impact on where to set the book. Setting has always been one of my most loved parts of a book, especially when I'm writing. The place should be like a character, whether that place is a home or an office or a town. The place should have personality. And even though I don't include a lot of visuals in this book, it was really important that I know what it looked like.

I'd set my first attempt at a novel in Southern California where I'd lived when I first got married. I loved that town, so every time I sat to write, it was like getting to live in it again for a little while. When I sat to write Some Kind of Normal, I knew the town had to be politically conservative and stereotypically Bible belt because a main part of the plot was the town's reaction to the idea of stem cell treatment. Southern California didn't fit the bill, but central Texas, where I'd lived several times, was perfect for it.

Where did the characters' names come from?

I have no idea where Bab's name came from! I'm sure there was some sort of decision making there, but honestly, it feels like she just appeared, name and personality and all. The rest were more deliberate. Because I wanted this to be very much a Texas story, I looked up the top 100 baby names in Texas in each of the years I thought the characters would have been born, and chose names from there. Looking through the lists, Travis, Ashley and Logan leaped out as exactly the people who'd been rolling around in my head.

Were they fully formed or did you have to work on character development?

Most of the characters were pretty fully formed when I began writing, but they definitely developed more as I got to know them. Logan especially grew into a much larger role than I'd anticipated, and at the onset, I thought of him as a bit detached and a troublemaker. He grew himself as the story grew, and I found the layers of him through his dialog with Babs. Donna Jean was also another one that changed a lot as I wrote, not because I worked on her but because her character evolved and deepened on her own.

There were two characters that were quite flat after the first draft though, so I did have to work more on them with some purpose.

Will Babs show up in another book somewhere down the line?

I don't have plans for Babs to show up, but you never know. Sometimes characters write themselves into a book. Still, at this point I feel like her story is pretty finished. I've started another book that takes place in the same town, and it's very possible that Ashley and Logan will play minor roles there, but not nearly to the extent that they were in Some Kind of Normal. More like a walk-on part.

What's your next project? And how is it coming along?

I have several projects in the mix right now. There are three novels I've started that are each about 20,000 words along, which is a little less than a quarter finished. I have a heart for each of them and love the characters in them. Now I just need to pick one to stick to until it's done.

Thank you, Heidi. If you'd like to know more about Heidi, see the amazing book trailer she developed (on her own) or learn more about Some Kind of Normal please click here.


Heidi Willis said...

i LOVE the golf claps!!! :)

thanks so much for doing this! You ask awesome questions! Next time, i shall try answering more awesomely... and shortly. :)

Patti said...

Great answers. I can't wait til my book gets here. My niece has diabetes as well, so it will be interesting.

Awesome interview Jen.