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Author Dana Reinhardt MAG
Having written four books, Dana Reinhardt is no stranger to the writing process. She currently lives and writes in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to interview her about her experiences. In her newest novel, The Things a Brother Knows, a teenage boy struggles to reawaken a relationship with his brother, who has just returned from serving in the Army.
Alex: First, I just want to say, I am not usually a fan of realistic fiction, but I enjoyed your book a lot. I really like your sense of humor.
Dana Reinhardt: Thanks. I appreciate that.
Your main characters are teens and your book is aimed at a teen audience. Why did you choose to write for teens?
I love to write YA fiction because I believe teen readers are more open to the experience books offer than adults are. I can remember how I felt as a teenager reading books; I plowed through them in a way I think adults simply don't. As a teen reader, my favorite books were coming-of-age stories – those are the stories I still love to read, and they are the stories I like to write.
This book focuses on the effects of war on teenagers. Do you believe children are being overly exposed to the real world at too young an age? How do you feel about young people being involved in war?
Well, for better or worse, wars are fought by young people, and have always been fought by young people. I don't know any teenagers who aren't aware of the war, or thinking about the world we live in. So I think that's part of why I write for teenagers – because they're just starting to form the opinions that they'll refine and develop and carry into adulthood.
Were you a writer in school?
I was definitely a writer in school. But I took a long break between school and writing books. In my fantasy, writing was what I wanted to do. But when I was about to graduate and the world stretched out in front of me, I thought, I can't just write, you know, I need a job. I had this wave of practicality wash over me. I thought, Writing isn't something I can just do – I have to find a job and get paid and have a career. So I went off and did all sorts of other things until I had the time and the courage to try my hand at writing again.
What advice would you give to someone like me who is just starting the writing process?
Read. Read as much as you can. Read to discover what kind of story you love. Read to find the kind of writing you love, and read to find the kind of writing you don't love. I still read as much as I can. I'm still discovering writers and books that I love, and also the things that don't work for me – what I don't want to do when I tell a story.
And write. Write as much as you can and as freely as you can without getting bogged down about who might be in the audience or who might think this or that about what you are writing. There is a wonderful freedom, I think, to starting out and playing with language that you lose when you begin writing professionally. Then you start to worry, What's my editor going to think about that? What is a reader going to think? It becomes limiting.
There are lots of strong relationships in The Things a Brother Knows. How do you develop these relationships between your characters from a writing perspective?
Sometimes that takes drafts and drafts to do. I read aloud a lot while I'm writing – especially with dialogue – because that really helps me know when something sounds awkward. If readers don't believe in the relationships or don't care about them, nothing else matters. It doesn't matter how good the writing or how literary or how articulate or beautiful your language choice is.
When you get stuck in your writing process, how do you overcome it?
Usually I will take a really long walk to get away and clear my head. And I have gotten better at putting things away for a little bit because sometimes you need distance to figure out problems.
If you had the opportunity to interview some of your teen readers, what would you ask us?
Why do you guys like vampires so much?
As far as vampire lit goes, I would never recommend Twilight. But I think probably the fascination with vampires is because it's this higher life where you are immortal and you get the perfect, hot boyfriend, etc. If you are going to read something, the House of Night series by P.C. Cast is so much better.
So you are saying that there is a higher vampire fiction out there?
Oh, definitely. Would you say it makes sense to always write what you know?
That's good advice. But I'd say write what you love and write what you would want to read. Because if it's not something you'd want to read yourself, you won't write it well.
What's the weirdest or funniest fan mail you ever received?
I get letters sometimes that say, “I read your book. I didn't really like it very much but I wanted to know, can you send me a signed copy?” That's really funny.
How much attention do you pay to the positive and negative opinions of your work?
In some ways my own opinion of my work depends on what other people say. By the time I'm done writing a book, I have no idea anymore if it's any good. I have been looking at it so long I have absolutely no perspective.
So when it gets reviewed, or someone gives me feedback, if the first thing the person says is, “This is an extraordinary work of fiction,” I will think, You know, this is an extraordinary work of fiction, and if the first thing I hear is, “This is really a failure,” I think, This is really a failure. So that's sad but it's true. You will start to believe what you hear because in some ways you are the worst judge of your own work.
You have a sense of humor about your writing, but the topics of your books are serious. How do you incorporate your sense of humor into writing and do you ever see yourself writing a book that is strictly comedy?
I don't actually see myself as a funny person, but thank you for saying that. I believe there has to be room for lightness in the face of serious things too. And I think teenagers in general are way better than adults at holding onto both humor and heartache at the same time. They can laugh or fall in love at the same time as someone they love is dying. They're able to compartmentalize feelings and be open to contradictory feelings better than adults, in my opinion.
You say that your editor helps you a lot. Do you think it makes a difference to have an editor who you really get along with?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's critical to me. I know writers who love their editors because their editors don't edit them and that makes their job as a writer a lot easier. But my editor makes me a better writer. She makes me work hard.
And it's not just getting along with your editor, you have to have profound trust because you have spent a year constructing this very fragile world and then here comes this intruder to stomp through it and tell you all the things wrong with it. I trust her with something incredibly precious to me.
What are three books you believe every teenager should read before graduating from high school?
I was just thinking about this the other day as I reread The Old Man and the Sea. I read that in high school, because everybody does, and I don't remember it having any impact on me whatsoever. And now I'm reading it as an adult and I can barely get through it without being bowled over by emotion. Certain things you read as a teen you might not appreciate on the same level as you will years later. But then again, if I hadn't been forced to read it in high school, I might not have turned back to it as an adult.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
My answer to this question is always the same, no matter the book. I want nothing more than for someone to think, That was a good story. I really enjoyed that book.