Josephine Cameron writes some whimsical stories. I regret not having read her two previous middle grade books (and plan to remedy that ASAP), but I am so glad to have read and enjoyed Not All Heroes. Today, Josephine and I talk about writing quirky stories (why does she love them so?!), writing about grief, and how being a music teacher for elementary school kids affects her writing. I loved this interview and I know you will too.
Josephine is also giving away a copy of her book, Not All Heroes! Find out how to enter at the end of the interview.
Hi Josephine! How lovely to be chatting with you about Not All Heroes, which I enjoyed! Like Zinnia, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after meeting the RLSH (Real Life Superheroes). Your stories tend to have a unique, quirky twist that I love (an old woman who’s maybe a mermaid, a group of real-life superheroes in spandex, dogs parading the streets). Why do you think you’re drawn to that kind of storytelling?
Good question! I don’t know why exactly, but I find so much delight in the small, strange details of life. I’ve always loved stories that catch me off-guard and challenge my expectations. And there are so many surprising and interesting things in the world! Every idea I’ve ever had has come from an oddball real-life kernel that captured my imagination, from the 1840s humbug of P.T. Barnum’s fake Feejee Mermaid to our current furbaby culture (100% of the stuff I “made up” while writing A Dog-Friendly Town turned out to exist for real…down to the doggie tattoos and the $500K dog collar!) And of course, the RLSH in Not All Heroes are loosely based on a real-life, small but worldwide subculture. Seriously, humans are weird and I love it!
The RLSH are an interesting bunch. They’re not always the best at executing, but their hearts are in the right place. You share a bit about it in your afterword, but would you mind talking about why you wanted to write about RLSH doing good in their communities?
I first read about the RLSH in Jon Ronson’s book of essays, Lost at Sea. After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about this tiny subculture of people who try to create change in their communities—in full-on superhero costumes!
The more I researched, the more I realized how much variety there was in the RLSH movement. You had Wiccans teamed up with Christian youth counselors and members from every political stance you can imagine. It was kind of mind-blowing to me that people from such different backgrounds and belief systems could come together to try to make their communities a better place. And yeah, execution was pretty varied, too. I read about RLSH doing everything from near-delusional crime fighting, to boots-on-the-ground neighborhood watch (there were RLSH on regular friendly patrol in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle last summer), to visiting children’s hospitals and bringing food and supplies to people experiencing homelessness. How could I not want to write about that?
Zinnia is still reeling from the grief of losing her brother. And as all grief comes, there’s some guilt too. Throughout the story, I was impressed with your balance of grief and levity. Was that something you strove for?
Thanks, Afoma! I actually surprised myself by writing a book about grief. Levity is definitely much more my comfort zone. I tend to meet almost every difficult moment in life with laughter, and as some of my siblings might say, I usually prefer to avoid getting too “heavy, deep, and real.” But the characters in this book pulled me in a different direction, so I decided to try my best to meet the difficult moments head on (even though it meant tapping into emotions that, like Zinnia, I would definitely rather push away). Luckily, I had some terrific readers including my superhero editor, Grace Kendall, to help me through. I’m so glad you feel the balance worked!
I found Trevor really annoying, but I thought your exploration of Zinnia’s response (or lack thereof) and Trevor’s perspective was fascinating. What did you want to highlight using their experience?
I just think people are so complex. We’re all learning and evolving and trying to figure out how to be in the world and with each other. When I was Zinnia’s age, my dad actually taught me the mantra, “Ignore it and it will go away,” which I have since learned is not exactly the best way to deal with conflict. If, instead, we pay attention and listen (both to our own needs and to others’), and approach the world with open-heartedness, I think we can grow and relationships can evolve.
We have a tendency to put people in boxes. That kid’s a bully. Or this one’s shy. That one’s a pushover. But all of us are more than we seem. We can learn to see each other differently and change the way we interact—especially if we find a common interest, or have some adventures together! Of course, that said, I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I was writing my first drafts. I was only trying to write characters who felt real to me, and Trevor served as the proverbial pebble in the shoe—one more annoying thing that Zinnia was trying to grit her teeth and ignore. That pebble can get really painful sometimes, though, and can push you to confront all the other pains you’ve been trying to ignore, too.
I really liked Willow and even though her past actions were hurtful, I could relate to her struggle — not knowing how to be there for others. I’m curious whether she was always going to be a part of the story from the beginning?
Sort of. This story always had a central character like Willow—a college-aged person Zinnia idolized but who had a lot of their own issues to figure out and would do some hurtful things in the process. In the first stages of the manuscript, though, that character was a new friend for Zinnia, and a Real Life Superhero from the get-go. It took me a while to decide that the RLSH should be something Zinnia and Willow discover together, and that their opinions of the group would diverge at various points in the story.
I know you’re a private K-8 piano teacher. What is your favorite thing about teaching elementary school students?
We laugh a LOT. I also love watching my students grow creatively. As a piano teacher who works with K-8 students, I get to teach some of them for several years. It’s incredible to see their creative muscles strengthen and develop over that time!
How do you balance writing with your job as a teacher?
It can be tricky, but in general, I write in the mornings and teach in the afternoons/evenings. When I’m revising, I love having my students to break up the day and get my brain thinking about something completely different so I can come back to the page fresh the next morning.
When I’m drafting, it can be harder to maintain focus, so I tend to get most of my solid drafting done during our vacation weeks and summer break. I have found that as my writing deadlines get tighter, I’ve had to cut back on the number of students I take on. I used to teach 47 students a week, which seems impossible now!
Which middle grade books have you read and loved recently?
I’ve said this a lot lately, but I seriously feel like we’re living in a golden age of middle grade literature. There are great books coming out on a weekly basis; I could read 24/7 and never finish everything on my to-read list! I try to cope by reading in several formats at all times. Hah! Here’s what I’m in the middle of right now: in hardcover, a super fun fantasy called Nightingale by Deva Fagan; on audiobook, Mike Jung’s The Boys in the Back Row (music and comics, yes please!); on my Kindle, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (I know, I can’t believe I haven’t read this one until now, it’s so beautiful!), and on my tablet I just finished the graphic novel Lightfall: The Girl & the Galdurian by Tim Probert and it was so imaginative and gorgeous, I can’t wait for Book 2!
What would you love readers to take away from Not All Heroes?
A sense of optimism, I think. The world can feel pretty dark right now, but there are so many kind, adventurous people out there…together, I really do believe we can help brighten things up!
Thanks for your time, Josephine!
Thanks so much for inviting me, Afoma! And thanks for all the light you shine in the kidlit universe!
Josephine and Macmillian are giving away a copy of Not All Heroes. You can enter the giveaway below. US only!a Rafflecopter giveaway
Buy Not All Heroes
Meet Josephine Cameron
Josephine Cameron grew up writing and singing in Northern Wisconsin but currently lives in Maine, where she writes fiction for young readers and teaches music and songwriting to K-8 students. Josephine received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame. Her song “Long Track Blues” was included in the New York Times Bestseller “Hip Hop Speaks to Children,” a book/CD set edited by Nikki Giovanni. Josephine is the author of the critically acclaimed Maybe a Mermaid and A Dog-Friendly Town, which received three starred reviews and was a Parents magazine Storytime Pick. Her newest novel, Not All Heroes, is a Junior Library Guild selection. To learn more about her books you can visit her website, Twitter and Youtube channel.