Thursday, March 13, 2014

Deborah Hopkinson, The Great Trouble, a Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel

AUTHOR:  Deborah Hopkinson
BOOK TITLE: The Great Trouble, a Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel
GENRE: Middle grade mystery
PUBLISHER: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Please tell us about yourself.

I have been writing for more than 20 years and have more than 40 books published. My passion is history, and I love to research and write both nonfiction and historical fiction, from picture books to middle grade to books for teens. I tend to think about the story first, more than the age groups or genre,

Please tell us your latest news.

My latest news is that after many years of having a career in higher education fundraising in addition to writing, I have left my day job to write full time. It’s exciting and a bit scary to be my own boss after years of working in higher education. But already I love it.  I think it will allow me to do more school visits and conferences – and will enable me to bring a renewed dedication to what I love best in the world: the process of writing.

This decision has also resulted in some surprising opportunities. I was invited to be the visiting author at the American Embassy School in New Delhi in April 2014, and will also visit The American School in London on the return leg. When I weighed doing a seating chart for a 500 person gala (believe me, a truly thankless task) with visiting the Taj Mahal, all I can say is that I am immensely grateful to be able to take advantage of such opportunities. 

Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?

Since this is all new, I am giving a lot of thought to this question right now. I am using many of the strategies I developed in my career in philanthropy to help organize my time. I am using an Outlook calendar to mark out intensive writing days, and also making time for travel, speaking engagements, paperwork, and going to the gym. I am very deadline driven so I try to work back from a deadline and set a schedule with  incremental milestones to be sure I can complete longer, complex writing projects such as a middle grade novel or nonfiction as well as shorter picture books.

What inspired you to write your first book?

I was inspired to write my first historical fiction picture book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, after hearing an NPR story about a quilt exhibition in honor of the centennial of the first African American graduate of Williams College. That book turned 21 in February 2014 and is still my most popular. (In other words, if they had all sold as well, I would’ve quit my day job long ago!)

What are your thoughts about promotion?

Marketing and promotion is certainly an evolving landscape for writers. Since I was involved in this to some degree in my “other” career, I know that publishers have limited resources. I have tried to add to what my publishers can do by adding on a blog tour, radio interviews, giveaways, and the like.

What is your marketing plan?

For The Great Trouble in addition to an ad, review copies, and a blog tour organized by the publisher’s publicist, I contacted additional bloggers, arranged for a few radio interviews, and mailed postcards and copies of the book to key folks. It’s always hard to assess the ROI of marketing efforts. While I have recently become more active on Twitter and begun a quarterly author newsletter, I prefer to let my body of work stand for itself. However, writers must make a living as well. It is a very noise and crowded publishing landscape. There will always be “bigger” books out here, competing for attention and marketing dollars. I think the key is to find a balance that works with your life and goals.

What are your current projects?

Currently I’m finishing a picture book set in Revolutionary times, a nonfiction book about the Danish resistance in World War II, and a novel set in late 19th century New York City.

How can we find you? Website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.?

My website is and I am on Twitter at @deborahopkinson. 

Tell us about the current book you’re promoting.

The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, is a middle grade medical mystery set during the infamous 1854 cholera epidemic in London, when a real physician, Dr. John Snow (now considered the founder of public health), attempted to show that the disease was caused not by bad air, but by contaminated water.  The book has a Dickensian subplot and encourages young readers to pursue scientific inquiry.  The Great Trouble was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a 2013 School Library Journal Best Book of the year, a Capitol Choices selection, and a CCBC Choices selection.
What genre do you write in and why?
I write in a variety of genres, including picture books, both nonfiction and fiction, middle grade fiction, and nonfiction.

What is your experience working or being around children or teens?
I often do school visits around the country (and internationally as well) and love to present especially in elementary schools. It’s always wonderful to see how teachers and librarians work to bring books and authors to young readers.

Did your book require a lot of research? If so, what kind?
Yes, I do quite a bit of research, using primary and secondary sources.  Whenever possible, I try to research a book project in person.  For The Great Trouble I had the opportunity to go to London. I also always try to find an academic or expert to vet my work as well.

Do you have any tips for writers who are new to children’s literature?
I always encourage new writers to join SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and attend conferences. It’s an excellent way to meet editors. I began writing for magazines, and found that was a great way to get familiar with the editorial process.

What book are you currently reading? What do you like or not like about it?
Right now I am reading the Booker prize-winner, The Luminaries. (Well, actually I am listening to it on audio.)  The audio is fantastic but I also ordered a copy

Describe your writing space.
I like to change my writing space. I sometimes write on my bed with my laptop balanced on a portable ironing board.  I write Titanic partly at the kitchen table, with research books spread around me, and am just now trying out a new writing space on the dining room table which actually is more of a plant table!  But from my window I am able to see a little hummingbird who seems to have a favorite spot guarding the feeder (in the snow) against other takers!

I have sometimes gone into a hotel for a weekend on a writing retreat. I’ve also joined Willamette Writers and will be experimenting with renting one of their writing rooms for a day. I think the most important discipline to have is to just to keep at it, no matter what!

Released to coincide with the bicentennial of the birth of Dr. John Snow, considered the “father of public health,” The Great Trouble, a selection of the Junior Library Guild and an SLJ Best Book of 2013, recounts the history-making events around the 1854 London cholera epidemic, when Snow proved that cholera was spread by water from a contaminated pump. Hopkinson’s fictionalized recounting of the epidemic received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, which noted: “Hopkinson’s attention grabbing story…is a delightful combination of race-against-the-clock medical mystery and outwit-the-bad-guys adventure.”

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